Gourmet Gone Wild!

Photo by Jeanne RiceBless my dimpled fanny, but none other than rap superstar and pimp-daddy extraordinaire Snoop Dogg prompted my recent journey to Iva Lee's, a New Orleans-themed establishment in San Clemente.

See, the other day, I was in one of my black moods, where even copious amounts of antidepressants fail to punch holes in the gloom. Whenever such evil humors attack, I take refuge in the only thing that lifts my sagging spirits: pornography. An outing to my favorite video store, Sleazy Sam's Smut Hut, netted a baggie full of DVDs, including Girls Gone Wild Doggystyle, set in N'awlins during Mardi Gras and hosted by Monsieur Chien himself.

Lounging in my BVDs and drinking Kahlua from the bottle, it warmed my heart, as well as other parts of my anatomy, to watch those lovely teenage gals flashing their assets for cheap necklaces of gaudy beads. Then it hit me: I've never attended festivities at Fat Tuesday. As I passed out from the Kahlua, I promised myself a Mardi Gras trip as soon as I was conscious.

Shrove Tuesday is months away, of course. But the next day, hangover or no, I was determined to laissez les bons temps roulez. So I was off to San Clemente, the seaside burg where Nixon slept and wept and home of yearling eatery Iva Lee's, known for its Southern Creole cuisine.

On the ground floor of a plain, white building nearby downtown San Clemente, Iva Lee's is like some ornate jewel box of purple and pewter hidden beneath an unremarkable exterior. Cross the threshold, and you enter a bar and dining hall where the walls and carpet are a luscious combination of maroon and burgundy. The ceilings are embossed tin, and the dark tables and chairs boast an antique appearance.

Framed black-and-white photos of Satchmo and Ray Charles are hung here and there, and Billie Holiday's velvety vocals caress diners' eardrums from the stereo. Attired in black, the corps of waitresses are all attractive young ladies, which never hinders digestion, I've found.

The atmosphere was matched by the food and presentation. Water was served in tall, elegant carafes, and the cornbread came shaped like small hearts, with honey-sweetened butter in a Valentine dish. I began with crawfish cakes and a bottle of Blackened Voodoo, one of my favorite dark beers (Louisiana-brewed, naturally). Three large crawfish cakes appeared before me, each topped with a dollop of saffron aioli, which I swear looked like egg yolk. The crawfish interior was reddish and sweeter than crab, not spicy. Though I was quite pleased with my choice, I'm dying to try their fried green tomatoes next time out.

I ordered another round of Blackened Voodoo while enjoying a salad of baby arugula, julienne pears and toasted pecans sprinkled with a pear dressing and topped with shaved Parmesan. Next came an entrée of pan-fried pork chops, the T-bone of the trailer park: a very nice cut, thick and juicy, and not overcooked. Perched over a bed of black-eyed peas and collards, it was accompanied by a small portion of candied onions (“port onion confit,” if you want to get fancy).

I prefer my black-eyed peas mushier than Iva Lee's, but my real quibble is with the collards. Why, I barely recognized those skinny little strips. Mixed in with the legumes and bits of andouille sausage, it was as if they were ashamed to be there! Collards, my friends, should not be so disenfranchised of their natural fullness of leaf. Mixing them with black-eyed peas is okay, but shredding them like cabbage for slaw will never do.

The dessert menu forced me to forgive the collards. I selected two: a slice of bourbon pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and the chicory coffee crème brulee. I could have done with more bourbon in the first, but I have to admit that it was as good as any pecan pie I've ever had. As for the second, that combination of coffee, custard and sugar should be outlawed it's so tasty. Like eating crack pudding.

About mid-evening, one of Iva Lee's lasses handed out sparkling green and gold beads to patrons. I'm disappointed to say no one took off their top. Inspired by the Blackened Voodoos and crack pudding, I eagerly offered to expose my own generous breasts, but the young waitress assured me that would not be necessary. Oh, well, so much for her tip.

Iva Lee's, located at 555 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, is open daily, 5-10 p.m. (949) 361-2855. Full bar. Dinner for two, $70. All major credit cards accepted.

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