By David Minsky
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I once got Paul Prudhomme so upset that his large, round, bearded face turned as red as a kidney bean. It occurred while I was interviewing him, in his K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, and mistakenly referred to a certain Cajun dish as Creole. Prudhomme chastised me with so booming a voice that his kitchen staffers froze in their tracks. His massive frame was propped on a stool and supported by a black, silver-handled cane, which he pounded on the floor as if to punctuate his outrage. I was shaking like a leaf.
Lest you should ever find yourself in a similar position, let me spare you the embarrassment by informing you in advance of a few basic differences between the two: Cajun food is rough and robust country cooking created by backwoods French Acadians who emigrated from Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s. Cajuns use fiery peppers, intense spices, and lots of animal fat -- when it comes to cooking, they don't fiddle around. Creole cuisine comes from the city and is thus a more refined fare, a combination of French technique (including healthy doses of butter and cream) and ingredients from the Spanish, Native Americans, Africans, West Indians, and a whole jambalaya of other nationalities that settled in the region. Prudhomme, like most contemporary New Orleans chefs, uses both types of cuisine in what he calls "Louisiana cooking." If you can't remember whether something is Cajun or Creole, that is a good term to use.
The folks at Creolina's Cuisinehave been Louisiana cooking for 13 years. Chef/owner Mark Sulzinski, following stints at Fort Lauderdale's 15th Street Fisheries and the Forge in Miami Beach, opened the original eatery in a warehouse district on Seventh Avenue in Fort Lauderdale. In 1997, he moved his shop to SW Second Street in Himmarshee Village, a beignet's throw from Las Olas Riverfront, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and the Museum of Discovery and Science. The newer Creolina's is a cozy, 52-seat space (with additional seating outdoors) with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and an eclectic mix of framed pictures adorning three yellow stucco walls and a smooth purple wall in back. The tablecloths are plastic, the napkins paper, the music not Cajun or zydeco but appropriately jazzy. The overall ambiance successfully conjures the laid-back feel of a regular neighborhood joint in New Orleans.
209 SW 2nd St.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-1821
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Contributing to this affable environment is Assistant Manager Rosemary "Rosie" O'Neal, who's been enthusiastically chatting it up with customers since the old warehouse days (though she's currently around only during lunchtime). The nighttime staff is less ebullient but friendly, knowledgeable about the food, and extremely efficient.
Diners are started with a basket of soft French bread and exceedingly oniony onion-pumpernickel rolls. Both were fresh, though corn muffins and biscuits would be a more fitting match for the down-home cooking that follows. The menu is compact: half a dozen appetizers, a little more than twice that many entrées, and a limited group of somewhat upscale chalkboard specials. I made the mistake of ordering popcorn shrimp and fried alligator tails as starters, both of which arrived crusted in the same coarse corn meal.
On a different occasion, we began with a special appetizer of crab cakes that were also dusted in corn meal, but the proportion of moist interior to dry exterior was greatly improved. The duo of brightly seasoned cakes, flecked with peppers and corn and pooled in a potent Creole mustard sauce, likewise contained a favorable ratio of crab to filler. The only other menu starters are gumbo and red beans and rice, both of which also come as entrées, and a crawfish bisque so pale and mild, it might well have been called cream of cream soup.
Nightly specials generally include a smoked fish or meat item that Sulzinski and Executive Chef Kevin Guay prepare on site. On one visit, they smoked up a pork loin, the juicy, lip-smacking slices of meat as tender as filet mignon and exuding a bacon-like intensity of flavor that brought to mind authentic barbecue. A semi-spicy brown sauce draping the pork was dense with corn kernels, roasted peppers, and soft, chewy nuggets of hominy, while a pile of mashed boniato and plantains made this a hefty and delicious plate of food.
As big and easy to enjoy as the specials can be, it's the traditional home-cooked Louisiana stews and rice dishes that distinguish Creolina's from other dining establishments. They do an admirable job with the basics here, excepting the gumbo ya ya. The dish gets its name from the African word for okra, which somehow got omitted. Worse, there was no chicken and but one mere morsel of andouille sausage. In fact, the gumbo was missing all solids except the cooking vegetables and rice.
Just about everything in Louisiana is served with rice, each person of the state annually consuming some 70 pounds of the grain -- way more than any other Americans. No rice dish is more ubiquitous than jambalaya, a combo usually consisting of various shellfish and smoked pork products -- Creolina's uses chicken, shrimp, and andouille sausage. Some versions are served dry like a paella; others, such as this one, come topped with a brown sauce that tastes similar to the gumbo base. Like most food served here, the jambalaya is only mildly spicy, but numerous bottles of hot sauce are brought to the table. The one Sulzinski makes, called Cajun Firewater, is exactly that -- a skull and crossbones are posted on the label, and I suggest you take this warning seriously. His habañero vinegar is only a little less lethal.