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Valley Life | restaurant review

Southern Accents

September 15, 2000|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stevie's Creole Cafe and Bar looks like a hurricane shack from the outside, but the inside is all restrained elegance--sponge-painted walls, sturdy wooden tables, posters of African American icons such as Paul Robeson and Nat Cole, and a spate of faux French windows. The restaurant is a spinoff of a Crenshaw Boulevard restaurant and jazz club called Stevie's on the Strip. On weekends, the new Stevie's features live jazz, the better to complement a gigantic menu of southern and Louisiana dishes.

Stevie's cooking is generally soulful and indulgent, though not always as careful as one would wish. Despite the use of good ingredients, some of the dishes taste slapdash, as if they were thrown together at the last minute.

One evening the actual Stevie came over to our table to check on how things were going. He's an impeccably groomed man with an easy charm and an engaging manner, and when we told him that his jambalaya tasted assembled rather than painstakingly cooked, he nodded sympathetically. At least he was listening.

For lovers of Southern cooking, the logical starting place is the seafood gumbo--by my lights, the best in the city. The addition of chicken and sausage to a thick, peppery roux already sufficiently stocked with crab and shrimp means this version isn't a seafood gumbo in the strict sense. But the deliciously smoky broth and all its component parts add up to a gumbo that's pure pleasure.

The best appetizer may be Cajun shrimp, lightly battered jumbo shrimp dusted with cayenne pepper and other heady spices. Among the soups, the best choice is the creamy corn chowder laced with bay shrimp, which is both thick and tremendously satisfying. One interesting salad is the smoky fried chicken salad, which consists of field greens topped with strips of smoked chicken breast in a crunchy batter.

If you are really hungry and not dining alone, go ahead and order the Last Supper, an enormous platter of fork-tender short ribs, perfectly crusted fried catfish and batter-fried chicken. The menu says this is enough for two people, but those people must be NFL linemen.

With this dish, you get a choice of four sides, and it is difficult not to score here, as well. The collard greens, for instance, are exemplary, which is no mean feat when you consider how easily these greens can turn bitter or mushy. Good French fries are dusted with Cajun spices, but make sure to ask for them on a separate plate, because the juices from some of the other sides can easily render them limp.

One delicious side dish that costs extra is dirty rice, which is rice cooked with bits of liver. At $12, collard greens with grilled shrimp is the menu's priciest side dish, but is definitely one indulgence that you'll thank yourself for. Save a lot of room for the heavy, sweet desserts: a wonderful, crusty peach cobbler, an overly sweet banana pudding or a square of dense bread pudding with a cloying rum sauce that the dish could easily do without.

The next time someone suggests that the Valley lacks that certain je ne sais quoi, just send them over to Stevie's.

BE THERE

Stevie's Creole Cafe and Bar, 16911 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, $29-$55. Suggested dishes: Cajun shrimp, $10; seafood gumbo, cup $8, bowl, $18; catfish, $18; peach cobbler, $5. Call (818) 528-3500.

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