Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Test Kitchen | Laguerre - 09/06/2010

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
(310) 277-0133

To be perfectly honest I don't think I've ever had authentic Haitian food in my life, not too surprising considering the lack of opportunity; not too many Haitians make it out to California. Ironically, despite owning a restaurant named TiGeorges' Chicken, chicken was conspicuously absent from the menu this evening. Instead the menu featured other classic Haitian dishes like goat, conch, and Acra; the national dish of Hati.

In the kitchen this evening was Chef George Laguerre of TiGeorges' (Little George's) Chicken in Echo Park, one of the few authentic Haitian restaurants around and a neighborhood favorite. Laguerre came to California hoping to make it in the "Business", but it was not to be. He ended up working a number of jobs including a stint frying chicken at a Church's Chicken.

Reading about Chef Laguerre I found much to admire beyond his talent as a chef, particularly his determination and ability to handle hardship. Immigrating to the United States at a young age, he and his siblings all went to college, no mean feat considering the fact they didn't speak a lick English when they first arrived. More recently, Chef Laguerre has taken an active role raising funds to aid quake victims in Haiti and offered his restaurant as a center for relief efforts. And if the earthquake wasn't enough, on the eve of his first visit to Haiti after the quake, personal tragedy struck and his restaurant burned down in an electrical fire. Impressively, Chef Laguerre takes things in stride calling the destruction of his beloved restaurant "a temporary setback". When we talked with him during dinner he sounded completely confident that his restaurant would be back and reopened in no time. In the meantime, Chef Laguerre has been working at one-off events like Test Kitchen and Caveman Kitchen to build awareness for his new restaurant.

Mai-Tai - Haitian Rum, House Made Orgeat, Lime, Curacao
All the cocktails for this evening were made with Haitian rum. First up was a classic Mai-Tai, delightfully sweet with overtones of fresh pineapple, close your eyes and you can picture yourself on a beach in the Caribbean with one of these in your hand.

Imperial Fiz - Haitian Rum, Rye, Egg White, Lemon, Sugar, Seltzer
Ever since I had my first Pisco Sour, I've come to appreciate the pleasing thickness that egg white foam can add to a drink. The drink itself was quite approachable as well, quite similar to the Mai-Tai but without the overt sweetness which allows the molasses-tinged rum to show more fully.

Chet Baker - Haitian Rum, Honey, Carpano Antica, Angostura
Our waiter called this a "Manhattan with rum," and true to its namesake, this cocktail was unabashedly boozy with a hint of sweetness and aromatics.

Acra - The national dish of Haiti: graded Taro roots blended with herring, green onion, bell pepper, onion, garlic, black pepper and parsley
I hate taro with a passion so for me to like the Acra speaks volumes as to how good it is; fitting for the national dish of Haiti. Despite being essentially a fried starch, I didn't find this dish overly heavy. The taro has a thick sticky consistency tinged with an oily fishiness from the herring wrapped up in a crunchy saporous exterior.

Pikliz - A Haitian thing, very hot, pickled for the Americans, sliced cabbage with carrots Habanero chile, salt, key lime juice, and vinegar
Paired with the Taro "hush puppies" was what one of my companions termed spicy cole slaw. The acidity of the marinade counters the gravity of the Acra nicely while the chile adds a burn that builds slowly and lingers on the palate long after the Acra and Pikliz are gone. Note in the description it was "pickled for the Americans," leaving me to wonder just how spicy the real thing is.

Deep Fried Green Plantains - Sliced, crushed in salt water, fried till crispy
I've never cared for the flavor of bananas, finding there mellow sweetness slightly disconcerting. These deep fried plantains were nothing like what I was expecting. Instead of sweet the flavor was incredibly mild and slightly savory while the texture was dense and starchy, like fried sweet potatoes.

Conch/Lambi - An aphrodesiac for the Haitians. Minced Conch sautéed in garlic, olive oil, bell pepper, onion, paprika, key lime jice, salt, black pepper, cloves, Habanero chile, and oregano
Don't know that I felt overly amorous after eating these, but this might be the best preparation of conch I've ever had. Previously my experiences with the mollusk have been at Japanese restaurants which typically served it stewed in its own juices complete with innards which makes for a very bitter and briny experience. Chef Laguerre's preparation leveraged the garlic and herbs to temper the harsher aspects of the conch while still leaving a pleasing brine. The deep rich sauce at the bottom was absolutely sublime and more than one member of my party wanted some bread to clean the bowl.

Haitian Rum Punch - Haitian Rum, Muddled Pineapple, House Made Grenadine, Lime
The recipe for this drink came from Chef Laguerre himself. The drink is somewhat similar to the Mai-Tai but without the distinctive sweetness of the orgeat the interplay between the fruit is more apparent; very easy drinking and refreshing.

Rum Buck - Haitian Rum, Ginger, Lime, Ginger Syrup, Bitters, Soda

We ordered two bartenders choice cocktails this evening one refreshing and one aromatic. For our refreshing selection we got the Rum Buck. As with many of the drinks I've had at the Test Kitchen the flavors seem to start with citrus on the attack, but the bite of fresh ginger makes this a standout.

Fair and Warmer - Haitian Rum, Rye, Lemon
Oddly enough this drink was also called a "Manhattan with Rum" and I think much more expressive than the Chet Baker. What made this drink was the thick slice of lemon peel resting atop the cup. Breathing deeply while taking a sip of the drink draws in the aromatic lemon oil which moderates the forcefulness of the rum despite not actually being in the drink itself.

Goat Meat... Cabrit for the Haitians - A festive meat, very bonny. If you ever have been to a Haitian party and goat meat was not served... You did not go to a Haitian Party
I loved the description of this dish on the menu and after having Chef Laguerre's goat I'm inclined to agree. He uses a three step cooking process. First the goat is baked in a key lime marinade. Next it is boiled very briefly in a vinegar sauce. Finally it is finished on the grill with more key lime. The result is a meat that is deliciously tangy and spicy with a wonderful charred essence and no gaminess whatsoever. Texturally the meat reminded me of braised oxtail, super tender with the fat rendered down and integrated into the meat. Along with the goat we were served a plate of rice and beans, simple, hearty, and humble the perfect starch to add some weight to the veggies and goat meat. Lastly we were given a small dish of Ti Malis "little malice" hot sauce, a mix of key lime, onion, garlic, and habanero which we promptly poured all over the goat.

Sweet Plantain - Deep fried with powdered sugar
As I mentioned earlier I'm not a fan of sweet bananas but even these came with a twist. Deep fried as they were, the plantains took on a distinctly meaty sapor, and I likened my initial bite to barbecue beef. Of course their natural sweetness came out on the finish but even then it was nowhere near as sweet as I expected.

Chef Laguerre came out numerous times over the course of the meal to greet diners and we were fortunate to have him stop by our table a couple of times. He explained the goal of this dinner was to present Haitian food the way it would be prepared at home. To that end, the food was served family style with all the dishes brought to the table with the expecations that diners would just dig in and enjoy and not worry about social niceties. With the way my table battled over every last scrap of food with elbows flying, I'd say he succeeded. As if to further emphasize the familial nature of his food, Chef Laguerre even brought his younger son with him to help out in the kitchen (his older one had an exam this and couldn't make it.)

I couldn't envision a more wonderful introduction to Haitian cuisine than this meal, and a downright steal at $25 to boot. The food was exactly what I expected: delicious, homey, and true to its roots. The strength of Chef Laguerre's cooking speaks for itself and I have no doubt he has gained several new fans from his two night run at Test Kitchen. I wish Chef Laguerre the best and look forward to the impending reopening of TiGeorges'.


Serena said...

Completely agree about the fabulous food, but you should have tried the Haitian rum all by itself. Barbancourt Five Star is the best in the word.

Serena said...

That should say, "world."

Epicuryan said...

With that kind of billing I'll just have to buy a bottle and try it myself.