By Eileen Keighley, Special to the Independent
They say, to really know someone, meet their family. Creole food is similar; it has a history. So, to really understand the cooking in Roux, the new Creole restaurant opening soon in Laguna Beach, you need to read the menu. More about that later. After a nearly $200,000 refurbishment, Roux will open in a historic 1939 building on Glenneyre Street owned by the heir of local artist Leonard Kaplan and replacing a long standing restaurant, Café Zoolu.
Michael Byrne, co-owner of The Saloon in Laguna Beach and now Roux, is excited about bringing Creole food to Laguna. “I was a regular in Zoolu for years and was aware of Creole restaurants popping up and gaining in popularity.” Then as fate would have it, Zoolu announced it was closing and while dining there one night, Byrne had a chance conversation with a friend and fellow diner about his idea for a Creole restaurant. The conversation ended, “You have to meet my brother. He is the best creole chef in L.A. You two should meet.” The brother turned out to be Norm Theard, owner of Creole Chef in L.A., reckoned by Dan Epstein of the Los Angeles City Beat, “The best New Orleans cuisine I have ever eaten in Los Angeles.”
Locals have been watching in anticipation, seeing contractors come and go, while the site transforms. The plans are ambitious and authentic. Theard agrees, “Roux will be a place that is quaint, warm and feels like you are at someone’s home. When you walk in you will be transported to an elegant old French Quarter restaurant, the music, the smell of good food and especially the hospitality.”
What is Creole food? It consists of a unique blend of influences from around the world brought to Louisiana by immigrants from as far afield as Europe and Africa and the Caribbean. It is more French and less spicy than Cajun; with seafood at its culinary heart.
If the restaurant is the book cover, the Roux menu tells family stories of Creole food. The signature dish, Shrimp Yvonne, pays homage to Theard’s momma, Yvonne, who now lives in Orange County and who first taught him to cook. “She was known to be the best Creole cook in the neighborhood, taught by her mother and aunts,” Theard continues. “I remember always being in the kitchen at holidays and weekends. We had a big family and food was a big part of it.” His mother’s influences are clear across the menu, many adapted from her handwritten recipes that were part of Theard’s childhood. “I want the menu to be memorable and authentic, definitely not “fushionville,” he says. “I want the food to have soul.”
There will also be some surprises: the oysters are broiled, the grits are cooked in a broth and made into small “cakes” and the Roux salad has a dressing with depth of flavor from pork andouille sausage ground into a powder before being added.
As with his food, Theard presents an interesting and dramatic story; once a victim of an armed heist in Los Angeles, his first career choice was surprisingly not food, but music, New Orleans’s other great obsession. He got into food while studying and playing music in Austin, Tex., and developing a love for La Boheme and Pavarotti. His first kitchen job: shucking oysters, thousands of them. Fortunately, he still loves them enough to be featured on the menu. He then toured for a few years as a drummer and took restaurant jobs during the down months. It wasn’t long after that he then left one stage for another, the kitchen, working his way up to become soux chef with Sheraton before opening his own restaurant in Los Angeles.
Theard left L.A. to move to Laguna last year and is excited about the venture. “It’s a really special place. It’s the people that make it so unique. I have had countless conversations with locals who tell me how happy they are to have something different in Laguna Beach and how the location will be their hang out! That’s exactly what we are going for.” And his ambition is clear, “To make Roux the most outstanding Creole restaurant in the country.” An achievable goal? There were lines out the door on most days at Creole Chef in L.A. and customers flew in from Louisiana.
Barring the unforeseen, Roux’s owners aim to open their doors by the end of June, opening six days a week in the evening.