Raising the bar
By MARK NIXON
“Darn,” I thought, “I should have brought my night vision goggles.”
There I sat with the Creole’s menu in hand, unable to read it because of the low-wattage lighting.
“You’re not alone,” Bruce noted. Our dinner companion pointed to a patron at the next table using the glow of his cellphone to peruse the menu.
A few weeks later we returned. The Creole must have gotten the message. The lighting was still subdued, but well within the I-can-see range. This illustrates my point: Restaurants, like most things in life, are not static. They get better or they get worse. Based on our three visits, the Creole, which opened September and started serving dinner in November, is getting better and better.
Let’s run through our Creole sojourns in chronological order.
Visit No. 1: I had a hankering for some “N’awlins” chow of the Cajun/ Creole variety, so I went straight for the gumbo ($6). In theory, it contained andouille sausage and duck. This was not the hearty, thick gumbo that I craved, but more of a thin and under-flavored gruel. I appreciated the hint of filé powder (powdered sassafras leaves), though it could have used considerably more of this essential gumbo ingredient.
Next came the crab cakes ($12), which had just enough “binder” to hold the crabmeat together without becoming a crab-flavored pancake. A slightly sweet, tangy mango sauce on the side was a fine counterpoint to the crab. I give them a B+.
Judy ordered the pork belly for $19, and she got her money’s worth. The pork was crispy and tender, accompanied by a mustard fennel sauce and a dollop of savory bread pudding. It was the best thing I tasted that evening.
Visit No. 2: Joined at the hip with the Creole is its breakfast/lunch counterpart, Creole Coffee Co., which opened in December. On our Saturday morning visit, the small cafe quickly filled up, but the steady-as-she-goes service never faltered.
Our frequent dining companions, Bruce and Jan, rave about the café’s bananas Foster crêpe and spinach-chicken crêpe. I will try them some day, but on this visit I ordered the tasso ham and spinach Benedict ($9) with a side order of potatoes dauphinoise ($4). The ham was a bit too salty for my taste — and I love salt — but this Benedict’s saving grace was that it came drizzled coast-to-coast in a mildly spiced Cajun mayonnaise. The potatoes were a bit heavy on the salt as well, but this Gruyere cheese and thinly sliced potato concoction was still a fine accompaniment.
Judy ordered the shrimp and grits ($12) with jalapeno bacon. Its not my idea of breakfast fare, but she loved them.
Visit No. 3: Jackpot. The braised collard greens ($9) — which features ramps, mushrooms and bits of smoked ham — is one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve had since ... ever. And this is coming from a man who once swore collard greens would never darken his mouth.
Judy ordered the grain salad ($9). I couldn’t imagine it being any good. But I was wrong; It was fantastic. Marinated cooked grains are tossed with roasted beets, goat cheese and pickled carrots.
For the main course, I ordered the whole trout ($20), which comes lightly breaded in cornmeal, a la Louisiana-style catfish. Outstanding. Judy’s duck leg confit ($16) was as crispy and succulent as the pork belly on our first visit.
Chris, our dining companion on this trip, raved about her filet mignon ($22). While she ordered hers far less rare than I prefer, I tasted it and found it to be juicy and tender.
One more rave: The crème brûlée with blackberries ($7) is rich without being crushingly sweet or heavy.
Now it’s time to drift back to Earth, where reality bites. We shared an order of beignets for dessert ($5). They were leaden. Memo to the Creole: It’s time for a road trip! Head to New Orleans, and order a plate of beignets at Café du Monde. They are hot, insanely light and dredged in powdered sugar. It’s what all fried dough should aspire to.
On a brighter note, please allow me a moment to sing the praises of Roger. He was our server on our final visit, and I think he should teach an advanced waiting class. He was friendly without being fawning, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the menu was like listening to a one-man stand-up show. Some servers familiarize themselves with the menu. This dude studied it, devoured it and made it his own. Encore!
It’s no surprise that the Creole comes from the same folks who resurrected the former Old Town factory bar that’s now Cosmos/Zoobie’s, one of the area’s best restaurants. From all appearances, this group has something special: a constant yearning to improve. These places seem to get better with each passing day.
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON
I’m hard-pressed to name something that I didn’t like about the Creole or its sister café, Creole Coffee Co. But it’s not impossible — and it is my job, after all — so I’ll get my one criticism out of the way early: I don’t like the pork belly. It comes with a savory bread pudding, and the flavors and textures did not work for me at all. The restaurant was also extremely dark while we were eating, and we all know that we eat with our eyes first. That said, there’s a possibility I would have liked the dish better if I could see it. But it doesn’t matter, because there are at least 10 other items on the menu that I would happily eat just about every day of my life. Let’s get to those.
Let’s start with the most important meal of the day, since I have been frequenting the Creole Coffee Co. for breakfast meetings. I always order a French press of coffee ($3.50 for a small pot), and I let it brew for twice as long as the server-provided hourglass suggests. I like my coffee strong, and the doubled brewing time allows for that. After sampling almost everything on the breakfast menu, I’ve zeroed in on my favorite savory offering, the corn biscuits and gravy ($8). The biscuits are big, thick and scone-like in presentation and consistency. The gravy is made with andouille sausage and brings a hint of heat, but nothing to make your sinuses cry out that early in the morning. I know it’s not exciting, but one of the finer points of the dish lies in the poached eggs that top the biscuits. Since my childhood, when Father She Ate would poach eggs on the weekend in a little plastic gad get, I have loved a properly poached, runny yolked egg. These well-prepared yolks have proven difficult to find, and I’ve forked into many breakfast dishes at area restaurants only to be disappointed when the yolk has been beaten into submission and transformed into a solid, rubbery mass.
The poached eggs at the Creole Coffee Co. are done right, and I bet they don’t even use a plastic gadget (sorry Dad). My second place for savory breakfast goes to the bacon and onion Benedict ($8) with a side of potatoes dauphinoise ($4 — all breakfast sides are à la carte). The baguette in the Benedict is crusty and can support the onion marmalade and tangy, creamy hollandaise sauce without getting soggy. Potaotes dauphinoise is the fanciest version of scalloped potatoes that you’ve can imagine, and this jacked-up version features thinly-sliced potatoes and bubbly broiled cheese on top.
My favorite sweet breakfast is the pain perdu ($8), an actually French version of French toast. Thick slices of a baguette are breaded with crunched-up corn flakes then cooked and topped with crème anglaise and a healthy shower of orange zest. The zest is a perfect foil to the sweetness of the breading and crème anglaise. When its citrus fragrance hit me before the dish even came to the table, my fate was sealed. The Creole Coffee Co. is doing food that nobody else in town is doing, and they’re absolutely nailing it. They’ve kept their menu small, which I love. While service can take a while sometimes, the wait is completely worth it.
While the fiancé and I have also thoroughly enjoyed our Creole lunches, especially the Creole salad ($9) and Croque Monsier ($9), my word count demands that I move on to the dinner menu.
I have sampled almost every item offered at the Creole — in the name of research, of course. The things being done with vegetables in the Creole kitchen stop short, but just barely, of miraculous. The zucchini noodles ($12) are a standout. The zucchini is thinly, flatly sliced, rather than being spiralized, which is all the 2016 rage. It’s served atop a pea puree, which simultaneously tastes like springtime in Paris and butter. Roasted cauliflower florets and pea shoots garnish this dish, tying together all the vibrant shades of green and making me eager for the days of coworkers bringing forearm-sized zucchini from their gardens to unload on me. The roasted Brussels sprouts ($10) are garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds — a brilliant move that provides texture to the dish — and crispy kale. The kale chips are salty, lighter than air and obviously health food.
Our favorite entrée is the roasted chicken ($16). An airline chicken breast (the breast with a wing attached) is roasted until the skin is crispy, but the meat is juicy, perfect, practically screaming to be eaten. The chicken is topped with fresh corn succotash and beurre noisette, which is the fancy way of saying brown butter. You make it by cooking butter until it is close to being burned, but instead you taste it, and then you use a piece of bread to soak it all up, and then you have to make a new batch, and then everyone asks you why you took so long in the kitchen. Long story short: it’s delicious.
We also sampled the beignets. They’re moist, messy and addictive. We also tried the bread pudding. It is firm, flavorful, studded with golden raisins and covered in a bourbon sauce that alone is worth the price of admission. The service, other than an initial stumble during the last week of December when I was annoyed by a waiter, is impeccable. In case I haven’t beaten you over the head with it, I’m a fan. A fanatic, some might say. And they might be right. Laissez les bon temps rouler, right into my belly.
Creole Coffee Co.
8 a.m.-2 p.m. daily.
1216 Turner St., Lansing.
thecreolelansing.com, (517) 930-6933
Bar hours: 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 2 p.m.- midnight Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Kitchen hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
1218 Turner St., Lansing
thecreolelansing.com, (517) 371-1361