There's "good," and there's "lick-the-plate good." The food by chef Norm Theard at the new Roux Creole Cuisine in Laguna Beach isn't just the latter; it's pot-licker good. I told the waiter as much when he asked how I liked the Shrimp Yvonne I'd just finished. I said if it weren't going to embarrass everyone around me, I would've cleaned the bowl with my tongue. Thankfully, I didn't have to. Theard served the sautéed shell-on shrimp and its garlic-thyme sauce with plenty of hot, crusty bread. By using it to squeegee the last precious drops, I saved my fellow patrons from the awkward sight of a grown man burying his face in the restaurant's china.
And I think Theard already knows how good his dish is without having to see that. It's his signature meal, one so personal he named it after his mother. In fact, his whole restaurant is personal. Though it's conceived through a partnership between Theard and Michael Byrne of the Saloon, Theard's family photographs are all over the walls. The chef traces his roots to New Orleans, and before this, he was the chef/owner of Creole Chef in Los Angeles. Now, Theard not only cooks here, but he also lives in the apartment above the restaurant.
I should note that this very space was once the long-running and beloved Cafe Zoolu, whose owners retired last year. And from it, Theard and his team inherit not only Laguna Beach's coziest dining room, but also one sufficiently far away from the tourist rabble of the main drag. What you see immediately as you enter is Theard and his crew of two sautéing, deep-frying and salting dishes in a small, open kitchen behind the counter. Anywhere you sit, you get whiffs of browned butter. You also notice the restaurant's finer details: the fleur-de-lis pattern on the windows, the Mardi Gras mask on a high shelf, the curlicue script above a hallway that spells out "Laissez les bons temps rouler" ("Let the good times roll").
But above all else, Roux feels like a neighborhood joint made for locals who know one another by name. There's a noticeable lack of ego here, not just from the staff, but also from the customers. When the hostess asked me how I was doing, she did it while putting a soft hand on my back.
On another night, I encountered a couple that was leaving as I was coming in. "You're in for a treat!" the woman told me as they walked to their car.
"Try the crawfish biscuit! They just put it on the menu!" the man said while patting his belly and giving a thumbs-up.
"I will!" I said, waving to them. "Thanks for the recommendation!"
And when I found my table for what was the second visit in a week, the waiter shook my hand to welcome me back. Also, as I would discover, that man in the parking lot was right. The crawfish biscuit is phenomenal. The dish—which starts with a green-onion-and-roasted-garlic biscuit smothered in a chunky sauce of crawfish tails and andouille sausage—has so much actual crawfish meat it amounts to at least an hour's worth of work at the Boiling Crab.
No matter what I've tried, I've not met a dish here that I didn't want to savor slowly and last forever. Even the lowliest side of red beans and rice is scrumptious and addictive, with every forkful of legume and grain bursting with the flavors of ham, andouille sausage and Creole alchemy. And there's the revelation of the stuffed crab, for which Theard hollows out a blue crab shell, crams in its sweet-sweet meat cooked with a brown butter sauce, and lays the whole thing on top of what tasted like red cabbage cooked down to sugar. The dish made me question why anyone still bothers with crab cakes.
There are Southern classics here, too. His flawless shrimp and grits—which sings of bay leaf, garlic, cream, thyme and that plate-licking sauce he named after his mom—is pure pleasure wrapped in comfort. The most elaborate dish you can order is the catfish. Theard pan-sears it, then slathers on a gravy loaded with lump crab, browned butter and a single sautéed shrimp, serving it over Creole rice and alongside a ratatouille that zaps your mouth with electricity.
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If you're not yet convinced Roux isn't the best new restaurant in Laguna Beach, try the garlic salad. Yes, even the salad is spectacular. It's layered with too many components to list here, but one of them is melted Brie. And yes, I also squeegeed that plate clean. However, since societal norms still frown upon doing it with my tongue, I used my fingers. My apologies to Judith Martin.
Roux, 860 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-3707; www.rouxcreole.com. Open Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$70, food only. Beer and wine.