Southern Comfort

This restaurant is closed.


Mardi Gras always makes me hungry for Louisiana cooking -- not that I require a special occasion for that craving. For months, my partner and I peeked through the windows of a "coming soon" Louisiana restaurant, wondering, "When? When?" Each visit to the nearby Home Depot, we'd make a side trip to the new Market Creek Square to check on Magnolias' progress. The reason for our eagerness? Not only would the restaurant specialize in the cuisine of southern Louisiana, but judging by the architecture, Magnolias would serve it in style.

We'd have been even more excited had we known that Magnolias' chef-owner is Bessie Johnson, who ran the popular Bessie's Garret in Encanto and later La Jolla. That restaurant closed before I moved here, but I've read raves for it and always regretted missing something good.

Magnolias opened two months ago, catty-corner from the Food4Less that anchors the mall. After entering via a chromed-steel Art Deco gate, you can head for the large but cozy bar or let the hostess lead you into a spacious dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows and wooden ceiling-fans. An overhang painted as a fantasy French Quarter balcony is rendered in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold, with white magnolias floating above the trompe l'oeil railing. The room's sections feature groupings of artwork or crafts -- wooden wine-plaques, for instance, or black-and-white silkscreens portraying jazz giants. The floor is carpeted, the well-spaced tables are ample, and the napkins are linen. Staff and patrons are diverse at Magnolias, and everyone is made to feel comfortable. And, my, you will be well fed!

Warm corn muffins come first, sweet and crumbly. (While we were boxing up the leftovers of our meal, the waitress brought us another batch to take home as lagniappe -- a word that means "something extra," a little gift. Lagniappe is a key concept in Louisiana hospitality.)

The choice of soups includes a crawfish bisque, a combination filé gumbo (the favored style in Cajun country, west of the Mississippi), and a Creole okra-seafood gumbo (which is generally preferred from New Orleans on north up the river). You know the food's going to be authentic when a menu makes this regional distinction, instead of offering a one-thickener-fits-all rendition. We began with the bisque, which seemed less bisque-like and more a simple cream soup (such as cream of asparagus). If you've never tasted crawfish, this is a great introduction: The rich liquid showcases the smoky flavor of bayou mudbugs, which the restaurant has shipped in from Louisiana.

Unlike the bisque, which comes as a cup or a small bowl, the gumbos come big and bigger. I opted for a "small" (ha!) bowl of filé gumbo, laden with andouille sausage, shrimp, dark-meat chicken, and a large crab leg. The liquid, thickened by a mahogany-colored roux, is tangy from tomato. It arrives with a scoop of steamed rice on top, so you can choose how much you want to stir in. The bowl comes with implements of crab-crunching destruction and wet linen napkins for the mop-up operations.

Salads also have a lively Louisiana touch. Our "Seafood Caesar Salad" featured fried crawfish tails with a hint of cayenne in the batter, tossed with crisp torn-up hearts of romaine and house-made croutons. It would make a splendid lunch.

The appetizers prove as generous as other restaurants' entrées. A trio of crabcakes, for instance, bears no resemblance to California crabcakes. These are not little hockey pucks but crab pancakes (or perhaps croquettes) the size of jumbo burger buns. The sweet blue-crab meat includes no bready filler, just a binding of parsleyed mayo. The cakes, their lightly breaded surfaces streaked with a mustardy remoulade sauce, sit beside a heap of coleslaw, with two colors of cabbage and carrot shreds in a thin, sweet dressing.

Louisiana's deceptively named "BBQ shrimp" aren't barbecued at all -- they're pan-sautéed with a lively sauce. In New Orleans, that usually means a spicy garlic-butter sauce, but the Johnson family comes from the Lake Charles region, not the Crescent City. Mrs. Johnson bathes a dozen-odd "barbecued" shrimp in an authentic, regional barbecue sauce that's weightless and tangy, with a balance of tomato, sugar, vinegar, liquid smoke, and hot pepper. (You'd never mistake it for a Texas "Q" sauce.) You can opt for "peel and eat" or "we peel it for you," which costs two bucks more. The peel-your-own is messy, but the flavor penetrates the shrimp because the shells trap the sauce. The dishes come with baguette slabs painted with Parmesan. I wished they'd come with the gumbo's wet napkins, too.

We wanted to taste the Southern-fried chicken without committing ourselves to the entrée portion (half a bird's worth). An appetizer of fried chicken wings came to the rescue. Mrs. Johnson rubs her own seasoning mix into the chicken, then flours and fries the pieces. With no liquid to weigh down the batter, the wings emerge crisp and savory. They're served with a ramekin of garlicky buttermilk ranch dressing for dipping -- don't miss this combination of flavors.

An entrée of crawfish etouffée (meaning, "smothered") wraps a smoky, roux-based red-brown tomato sauce around peeled tails served over steamed rice. I was delighted when the flavors took me back 20-plus years to my first-ever taste of the dish in Henderson, Louisiana, a tiny bayou town dedicated to the craft of crawdad cuisine. Returning to the present, I ordered a side dish (called "lagniappe" on the back of the menu) of hush puppies. Accustomed to leaden versions fit for dogs, I was astonished by their lightness and subtle onion flavor. (The secret is slivers of scallion greens.) The pups were sprinkled with powdered sugar, a touch rarely found outside Louisiana.

When my boyfriend tried the shrimp and sausage jambalaya, he said, "Odd, this tastes familiar." "Yeah," I said, "that's because you ate this same jambalaya at home two weeks ago. This is my jambalaya." Obviously, I'd consider Magnolias' the ideal, tomatoey, but cohesive rather than soppy. Seasonings include the "Cajun holy trinity" of sautéed onion, green pepper, and celery -- plus garlic, cayenne, and other secret ingredients. The shrimp are added near the end of cooking, so they remain tender. With this dish, we chose a lagniappe of fried okra, though neither of us much enjoys okra unless it's gumbo-ed to death. If you're into okra, however, these fritters are perfect.

In the South, you are unlikely to get a pork chop that's pink in the center unless you're paying $35 for it at a "New Southern Cuisine" temple of gastronomy. Magnolias' "Southern-Style Pork Chops" are overcooked to my tastes, but they're flavorful, with outer rings of fat to moisten the meat and a deep-down-delicious spice rub. The chops are swathed in an oniony gravy and accompanied by cornbread dressing with assertive herbal seasoning and the homogenous texture of soft polenta -- this bears no resemblance to that gritty November offering from Mrs. Cubbitson. Mrs. Johnson is a magician with cornmeal. For the included side dish (from the "lagniappe" menu) we chose candied yams, as sweet and sexy as a Middle Eastern dessert, with cinnamon to sharpen the flavor. We added another side of macaroni and cheese, made with four different cheeses, including cheddar. The flavor was interesting, but reheating had congealed the texture.

One menu section of entrées is titled "Magnolias' Favorites," and along with the ideal jambalaya, it includes my least favorite entrée, a Louisiana/California/Mex mutant called "Crawfish Enchiladas." The cheddar overwhelms the crawfish, and the flour tortillas (instead of cornmeal) are soggy, unfit for enchiladas. The side dishes are plain-and-pleasant meatless red beans and "dirty rice," done here as herbed rice with lean ground beef. (This dish more typically includes ground chicken gizzards and hearts; if they were present, I couldn't tell.)

An oyster po' boy was also disappointing. The garnishes of shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, and "Cajun mayo" dressing were zesty and authentic, but the fried oysters seemed scant given the bread's thickness, and the bivalves tasted of iodine (which can be a function of their age, type, local water conditions, etc.). Fortunately, there are six other choices of fillings for the sandwich, including grilled Portobello mushroom for a veggie version.

All desserts are house-made. My boyfriend fell hard for the fruit cobbler, a giant portion made with canned peaches and shards of pie-crust dough. The wedge of sweet-potato pie was so sweet and rich, it took two of us three days to finish it, in bits and nibbles and satisfied sighs. The bread pudding is warm and fluffy, anointed with rum-butter sauce. I don't think I'll try to avoid those Home Depot schleps anymore, knowing that at the end of each trek there'll be -- not a rainbow, but a gumbo.

ABOUT THE CHEF

"I came here from De Quincy, Louisiana, about 35 years ago," says Bessie Johnson. "It's just outside of Lake Charles. My sisters had already moved here. We were young and just wanted to leave Louisiana. But I started cooking much earlier than that, when I was ten years old. My mother was in an automobile accident when I was really young, and being the oldest girl at home, I started cooking for the family. Then my mother had a little café in Starks, Louisiana, a sort of family café. We had that the whole time I was growing up, and I helped her out when I wasn't in school.

"When we came out to California, my husband Charles had gotten a job out here as a medical researcher. We didn't go right into the restaurant business. I was a stay-at-home mom for quite a while, and when I decided I wanted to work, I worked for Pacific Bell for 10, 12 years. Then I decided to come back home and stay with my son, who was a teenager and needed my attention. As he grew older, I wanted to work again, but not for somebody else. I couldn't think of anything I knew how to do other than cook.

"I had no intention at the time of opening a big restaurant. My thought was to have a little takeout place. But I don't really like takeout, myself. I like going in and having a place to sit down. So that's what we did. My first restaurant, Bessie's Garret in Encanto, had 150 seats. I was kind of naïve -- but it worked out fine. I learned a lot. After we stayed there four or five years, we closed that one and opened up again in La Jolla. We stayed there a couple of years, and then I went out to do catering only. La Jolla turns out to be very seasonal. It's busy from March to September, but after Labor Day, business really quiets down."

While the Johnsons were enjoying semi-retirement, the Market Creek Square shopping center started construction. It was designed as a focus for the community, a source of pride for its up-and-coming multi-ethnic neighborhood. In an area overdosed with burger, taco, and fried-fish stands, the developers planned for a stand-alone, sit-down restaurant, serving top-quality African-American cuisine. "People started asking for me -- that's what the landlord here told me," says Mrs. Johnson. "They had these community organizations, and the landlord was asking them what kind of restaurant they should have here, and who, and my name kept coming up. So they started calling me and asking me if I would do a restaurant here. When we decided to do this, we had to put a lot of thought into it, because -- it's a little scary. But we live near here, and we thought, 'Why not have a nice restaurant in the area?' And after much prayer and consideration, we thought, 'Okay, we'll give it a try.' "

To create Magnolias, Charles Johnson worked closely with the contractors and builders, and together they came up with the present concept. From initial idea to plan to reality took three years. "I couldn't do this without my husband," says Mrs. Johnson. "He retired from UCSD, and he does the running around, he does the books and the PR work. It's always been a family-run restaurant. My son used to work with me, and now he's away at school, and my daughter Tracy works here as the manager. Hopefully, we're passing something down to our three grandchildren. Some of them already enjoy coming in and helping me work -- so we hope this restaurant will have some longevity."

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