The Attic: Old Folks At Home
I'm seated next to an honest-to-goodness fireplace in a Craftsman house built in the 1920s. When a server walks past carrying a tray loaded with Mason jars of Bloody Marys, the wooden floor creaks, flexes and groans beneath her feet. As I leave later, owner Steve Massis is sitting on the porch. He stands up from his rocking chair, waves goodbye to us as if this were Mayberry and we were dinner guests at his home. We might as well have been.
The former general manager of Long Beach's La Crêperie Café, Massis has created his lifelong dream. Having supper at the Attic was as pleasant an evening as I've had in a while. My friends and I had great conversations sparked by the house itself and ate food that wasn't just the usual. We spent a good few minutes discussing the genius of the crumbled Flamin' Hot Cheetos sprinkled atop the macaroni-and-cheese instead of breadcrumbs, ultimately concluding it was the best silly idea since the Snuggie. Even the name was perfect: "Mac 'n' Cheetos." As I filed that away in my brain for future experiments at home with a blue box of Kraft, a crock pot with flaky puff pastry sealing the top was brought to an adjacent table. "What's that?" one of my dining companions asked, salivating. "I think that's the chicken pot pie." The truth was everything on the menu looked good.
The Attic is the kind of back-to-basics eatery we Americans are hard-wired to love. The fare is southern, with dashes of Cajun and Creole, but it doesn't take more than the mere mention of the ribs, the meatloaf and the fried chicken with gravy to make a place that already looks like Grandma's house even more endearing. When the fried green tomatoes arrived, the cornmeal-breaded half-moons were not only smothered in a sauce resembling a remoulade sprinkled with some candy-sweet Vidalia onions, but also included the beveled coins of alligator and pork Andouille sausage that attracted us to the dish in the first place.
We all agreed the sausage didn't much taste of alligator meat. I couldn't detect the fishiness I remembered when I last sampled the reptile in the Everglades, but as I told my friends, maybe that's a good thing. Also, the étouffée was nothing like the one I ate at Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's in New Orleans more than 15 years ago. In that benchmark dish, rice is practically drowned with gravy thickened and colored by brown roux. The Attic's version is nearly dry, devoid of sauce, but it made up for it with so much tender shrimp and crawfish that I wonder if the Attic's ledgers weren't angry. Later, chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and house-made country gravy landed on the table with an audible thud; the best part of the dish was the collard greens that balanced what was fried, rich and starchy with a palate-cleansing bitterness.
It was about then that I remembered what Massis said in a video on the restaurant's website. He claimed he decided to not go the burger route with this concept, as other restaurateurs did after the Great Recession. There was enough of that, he posited, but not nearly enough restaurants doing stick-to-your-ribs southern. Burgers and fries are still on the menu, but the patties are made from buffalo and the hand-cut fries are best done as poutine, Massis' version of the Canadian staple in which the potato spears are embellished with wet shreds of braised beef short rib, red-wine demi-glace and stretchy cheese curds.
Massis also allows himself to offer a decidedly froufrou salad with fancy microgreens, apples, candied nuts and enough searing blue cheese to clear the sinuses. It was on special one night when I was considering something called "Maw Maw's Cajun Slaw."
Being that this is still Belmont Heights, the breakfast capital of Long Beach, Massis also dutifully serves egg-based plates until 4 p.m., with buttery, cubed potatoes on the side. We were drawn to the corned-beef hash, as most people will be, but we were ashamed to admit we expected the stuff from a can, not actual cubes of corned beef cooked with onions and mixed into the steamy house potatoes.
Perhaps the best morning meal to have here is the "Southern Scramble," a simple dish of beaten eggs coaxed to creaminess in a frying pan with sausage, bacon and ham; it's dolloped with sour cream and salsa. It may only be southern by name, but it would taste like it was made by meemaw anywhere you have it, especially in this charming old house, next to that honest-to-goodness fireplace.
This review appeared in print as "The Old Folks At Home: The Attic serves great Southern fare in a creaky Craftsman house in Long Beach."
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