Jun. 2—The Cajun Creole cuisine of the Big Easy has arrived in the Lilac City, as owner Korri McElfresh and executive chef Logan Maus, a transplant with his fiancée from St. Louis, opened Vieux Carre NOLA Kitchen at 1403 W. Broadway Ave. on Tuesday.
Open for lunch and dinner, Vieux Carre, pronounced "voo kuh-ray," is a French term meaning "old square" and also a signature and classic New Orleans rye whiskey cocktail — think a more complex Manhattan. The menu features New Orleans staples such as crawfish, hush puppies, gumbo, jambalaya, beignets and much more.
I chatted with McElfresh and Maus at Vieux Carre on May 25, one week before the restaurant was set to open to the public, and our topics of discussion included New Orleans, the menu of food and cocktails and Spokane's culinary scene.
Congratulations on Vieux Carre — it's very exciting. I think you were smart to start with a private, friends-and-family soft opening for two weeks. Not all restaurants do that. Why did you decide to go that route?
McElfresh: Thank you, thank you! Well, I came into this knowing that the majority of my staff have not been in the restaurant industry. They've been in the service industry, but not the restaurant industry, so I wanted them to feel like they had enough training and were confident.
The worst feeling in the entire world is going into a restaurant and not knowing what you're supposed to do, then getting bad feedback. I don't want anyone to feel like that. I want them to feel empowered and feel excited to be at work and not be scared that they're going to be yelled at by a customer.
Are you ready for your grand opening to the public on June 1?
McElfresh: I believe we are! I have a lot of confidence in the staff and us.
Maus: We're absolutely ready.
Tell me about your background in the restaurant industry.
McElfresh: I started when I was 16 years old working as a hostess and barista for the sister hotel of the Coeur d'Alene Resort. Most of my life has been in restaurants. I most recently worked for Adam Hegsted's Eat Good Group as a manager. I also worked at Hill's Resort in Priest Lake. I have worked in Spokane at a number of places. I've been in Spokane most of my adult life.
So, why a New Orleans-style restaurant in Spokane?
McElfresh: When I looked at the culinary scene in Spokane, I just wanted to do something a little different. I didn't want another flatbread or beet salad or Brussels sprouts. Don't get me wrong. I love all those things, and I love all the restaurants here, but I wanted to do something different.
I booked a trip to New Orleans to eat my way through the city and fell in love. I came back and immediately booked another trip to take my other half, Paul, with me, and we ate our way through the city again. That was the start of it.
What were some of the staples and dishes there that inspired you?
McElfresh: Oh, crawfish hand pies and shrimp and grits. Red fish is on every menu down there. Obviously, the jambalaya and gumbo are phenomenal and staples. The crawfish, I was astounded at how many ways you could use it, and it's delicious. I had never had good grits until New Orleans. I also bought a lot of cookbooks and art and came home and started piecing things together.
Logan, how did the two of you meet?
Maus: Honestly, quite by chance. They had been looking for staff for quite some time to fill the different positions. I was living in St. Louis at the time, and my fiancée and I were both interested in moving to Washington. We wanted to get into an environment that was a little more food-centric and vibrant with mountains and lakes and trees.
My fiancée has always been in love with the beautiful environment out here, so we knew that we were coming to Washington at some point. I kept looking for job openings and saw an application from Korri for a Cajun Creole combination kitchen coming up, and I really want to throw myself into it.
My background has Cajun Creole in it mainly because of my family. St. Louis is the sister city to New Orleans, so living there for 14 years, there is a touch of it everywhere. St. Louis has the second-largest Mardi Gras, and I have grandparents who live in Kenner about 20 miles west of the French Quarter, so we were always surrounded by wonderful homemade dishes.
When did you move to Spokane? And, what do you think so far?
Maus: Thirty-two days now, and absolutely in love. It's a big-town, small-city situation. Everybody, even if they don't know each other, it's a happy community, which is a bit of a startling change for me from St. Louis. I love it.
You're into one week of your soft opening, and the public opening is one week away. What are you most excited about sharing at Vieux Carre in terms of your menu and cocktails?
McElfresh: Spokane is very big into craft cocktails, and we have a handful of craft cocktails, but I really tried to go back to the roots of New Orleans and bring back some of those very original cocktails. The first cocktail invented is the Sazerac, which originated in New Orleans. And we have the classic and signature Vieux Carre, which became the namesake of our restaurant.
The food is just something different. There are a couple places where you can get Southern food, and there are places with similar dishes. But they're done more Northwest-style, and we tried to stick with New Orleans-inspired. We'll try to stay locally sourced, though. Our crawfish are live caught out of the Snake River; they are Northwest crawfish. So, we offer a crawfish boil.
We are offering oysters, too, and we'll offer them for as long as we can. It's a different atmosphere. I really wanted this place to feel home-y, somewhere you would go and feel invited and welcomed.
What are your favorite menu items, Logan?
Maus: Being the person who cooks the food and has worked really hard to come up with these recipes, I just have to say that I love Cajun Creole food. They're two distinct cultures, but growing up with a Sicilian mother and having visited Italy, I really love a little more heat in my food.
But, in particular in what we have put together, I have to agree with Korri that the crawfish hand pies are one of my favorites. It is a dish that we put together that showcases our skills rather than necessarily taking from the more traditional bread style. We use a puff pastry and locally sourced crawfish tail meat.
The bread pudding is absolutely to die for. No matter how you make it, it's going to be delicious. It's one of those dishes that is hard to mess up. Korri's inspiration for it is one of my absolute favorites I've ever done — we use croissants for the bread pudding. I'm very much a dessert person. Give me something sweet and delicious, and I'm going to be very happy.
I'm extremely excited about our beignets, as well. That's just a fun recipe to make. It's amazing to watch something that when you first produce it, it might be a 2-inch or 3-inch square, but you throw it in the fryer oil, and all of a sudden, it poofs up into this giant, pillow-y, doughy deliciousness. Throw on some powdered sugar, and I'm in heaven.
What would you suggest to customers new to New Orleans cuisine?
McElfresh: I would suggest the crawfish hand pies. Our corn bread is amazing, and I don't know how else to describe it. It's sweet, then a little savory with green onions. Also, the shrimp and grits are really good with the red eye gravy. Chancy's fried chicken is really good. It's our sous chef's recipe.
Also, the beignets and the bananas Foster. I have a love-hate relationship with the bananas Foster because I'm allergic to bananas, but it's so good, it's worth taking a bite or two once in a while despite the consequences (laughs). We can't light it at the table, but we do add the whiskey and flambe it in the kitchen. It's caramelized and super good.
It's the million-dollar question, but what is your recipe for success? How will you sustain Vieux Carre once the initial buzz wears off?
McElfresh: By being consistent — consistent hours, consistent food and consistent quality of service and catering to our guests. I also am keenly aware of the changing of the seasons, and we will change our menu, from the food, like our crawfish and oysters, to the wine list.
Maus: Korri's philosophy that I've seen, and it's very true to the Southern philosophy, is when you walk in the door, it's not just a date night or a quick bite and drink at the bar. You're family, hang out, try all these wonderful dishes and cocktails. When you come in, you're transported from Spokane to Louisiana.
Dining at Vieux Carre
I dined at Vieux Carre on its first night of service on May 17, then returned eight days later, and I've made my way through much of the flavorful menu. Dinner on Night 1 included hush puppies, Vieux Carre salad (with lots of anchovies — yes, please!), bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits, catfish with crawfish etouffee, beignets, bread pudding, Vieux Carre cocktails and cava.
Dinner on Night 2 was more far-reaching and included crawfish hand pies, whipped honey corn bread, BBQ shrimp (very spicy in a good way), gumbo ya-ya, red fish, Chancy's fried chicken (so juicy), bananas Foster, beignets and the cocktails Southern Cobbler, Vieux Carre, Sazerac, Southside, Southern Lady (no, it's not named after me!) and Daiquiri.
I enjoyed everything, but the standouts were the hush puppies, Vieux Carre salad, shrimp (both dishes), catfish, fried chicken and Vieux Carre cocktail. The crawfish boil was sold out during my second dinner, so I'll absolutely return for it — and another Vieux Carre cocktail.
As of Friday afternoon, Vieux Carre had not posted its hours, but it will be open for lunch and dinner, McElfresh said. Call (509) 495-1400 for reservations, and the under-construction website is vieuxcarrespokane.com. I am thrilled that Vieux Carre has added a little bit o' spice and flavor to Spokane's culinary scene.