The Moderate Easy
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 Cuisine have 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.
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.
Those who prefer their food fiery will definitely splash one chili-infused sauce or another on the crawfish étouffée, which, because of an addition of cream, is the mildest of the stews. It's also one of the tastiest, the tail meat of the tiny freshwater crustaceans sweetly engaging.
(Readers Quiz: Is crawfish étouffée more likely to be Cajun or Creole?)
Monday in New Orleans is traditionally laundry day as well as red beans and rice day. This is by design: The beans can be cooked slowly, with little attention, while the wash is being attended to. Creolina's clean rendition is lacking in ham-hock smokiness (for the sake of vegetarian diners) but offers a modicum of that taste via smoked andouille sausage and is otherwise imbued with full flavors emanating from the vegetables, seasonings, and stock. A Cajun combo with bowls of rice and beans, jambalaya, and étouffée is a great way of getting acquainted with, or just enjoying, all three. It costs $15.95, which is about average for the entrées -- Creolina's prices have steadily crept up over the years but are still pretty decent.
Having personally blackened more than a thousand redfish while cooking at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, I've experienced occasional pangs of guilt over their near-extinction. Redfish have been recovering recently thanks to the never-ending quest of food faddists to move on and threaten the existence of other species (like, more recently, the poor Chilean sea bass), but it should be respectfully noted that Creolina's doesn't serve either of these seafoods because of their endangered designation. There are still plenty of catfish to fry, however, and the kitchen crew does a bang-up job of doing so, first flouring the fish, then bronzing in a pan of hot oil, and finishing with a thin, brown, butter sauce that soaks its fatty flavor into the white flesh; a few pecans are thrown on top to warrant the menu title of "catfish pecan." The plate also comes heaped with collard greens, crunchy haricot verts, an aromatic, cardamom-infused acorn squash purée -- and buttery rice.
Sugar cane is Louisiana's second-largest cash crop, which may be why desserts in that state are so saccharine -- is there a sweeter treat than pecan pie? Well, you won't find pecan pie at Creolina's, nor pralines nor freshly fried beignets, but there is a ridiculously rich, sweet, and delectable bread pudding, served warm and studded with walnuts and melted chocolate. As if that's not enough, the pudding is padded with a heap of whipped cream and a second mound of a well-spiked bourbon sauce that's really more like a foam. If after finishing one of Creolina's hearty meals, you've no trouble polishing off this pudding, you may have an eating disorder.
If Creolina's were located in the Crescent City, it would be one of countless places to grab a decent plate of rice and beans. In Broward County, it's one of the only, which is something of a good news/bad news proposition. The bad: With so little competition, it needn't be spectacular to succeed -- and it isn't. The good: It's still a pleasant, affordable place for honest, tasty, unpretentious home cooking and might just be the best spot in Fort Lauderdale to get your ya-yas out with authentic food from New Orleans.
(Answer to Readers Quiz: I already told you -- if you aren't sure, say "Louisiana cooking"! Jeez, this Prudhomme guy's gonna eat you alive.)
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