Dinner at Louisa's
Eating Good in the Neighborhood
This article was purchased in our annual charity auction. More info at strangercrombie.com.
Louisa's has always meant one thing to me: massive cinnamon rolls. Eastlake was home for a time, and many hours were misspent at the Eastlake Zoo Tavern. After leaving there late on a Saturday night, my roommate and I would liberate a Sunday New York Times from the bundle outside the Eastlake Market (sorry, Eastlake Market—we were young and poor). Then early the next afternoon, we'd bring the paper to Louisa's, where an enormous cinnamon roll, fragrant and sticky-sweet, was a coil of life-saving goodness. Everybody in Eastlake—old hippies, parents with babies, hungover slackers—would park themselves at Louisa's and drink coffee and read and hang out all day. Louisa's had big tables that people shared without calling them "communal," and Louisa's had mismatched wooden chairs out of thrift instead of chic. It always smelled so, so good in there, a big bloom of baking bread suffusing the room and, salubriously, your soul.
After 15 years (the first three under the name Tio's), Louisa's is firmly in the neighborhood- institution category. You'll still find the cinnamon rolls, and the big happy room, and the hanging out. And still, notably unchanged, Louisa's bread: a dense, fine-crumbed white country loaf that's both simple and luxurious. In a better world, you could have a bed made out of this bread, upon which you would sleep very, very well. But at nighttime at Louisa's now, the smell-cloud of the bread, with its faint cinnamon lining, is joined by dinnertime smells. The wonderfully named Alcena Plum bought Louisa's a year and a half ago, and she did not change a thing except to start serving supper. The other evening, the air was scented bread, cinnamon, and chicken; this doesn't sound good to the ear, but to the nose it spelled "Morocco" and, suddenly and emphatically, "hunger."
One thing has been frequently on my mind since I had dinner at Louisa's: the garlic sage prawns. Chef Chris Adkins sautés the sizable prawns with the shells still on, which always makes for a pleasant mess while keeping them tender—and these were sautéed with such restraint, they were just barely past undercooked. These prawns were pulled off the heat at the perfect moment, with Adkins clearly taking into consideration that they would cook a tiny bit more sitting in their wine-butter- garlic-sage-lemon broth. That broth, too, was the product of careful consideration, with whole cloves of simmered-sweet garlic, not too much red chili pepper, and both the sage and the lemon understated, neither shouting down the whole. The prawns are $8 for a generous dish—no three-prawns-only sorrow here. The bread served on the side made an excellent sopping agent and was all eaten up, every bit.
Louisa's panzanella salad ($7/$10) has less bread than you'd expect in a bread salad from a bakery—just a handful of highly buttery croutons and a few Italian-style bread twigs along the side. What stands out in this salad are the smoked tomatoes, which are practically dissolving with super-richness and ebullient with smoky flavor. They're slow-cooked at low heat with three kinds of wood: If you like smoke, you're going to lose your marbles. If you don't so much, the panzanella's grilled eggplant is just as soft and rich without such pronounced mesquite. Also aboard: mixed greens, Manchego, and a chili vinaigrette that (again) showed thoughtfulness about not overdoing spicy heat.
The dinner menu has a couple pastas, a few burgers, and a short but appetizing range of entrées: roasted vegetables with polenta ($12), chicken-fried steak ($14), red-wine-braised beef tips ($14). The tacos el carne adovado ($12) proved to be a very good choice: falling-apart chili pork with just enough heat to say hel-LO without being pushy, stuffed into a couple corn tortillas that were a little crispy and a little greasy in just the right way. On top and spilling over: crumbled queso fresco and a large, delicious Southwest salad in the form of tons of cabbage, corn kernels, and tomato. A nightly special of a Rosie free-range organic chicken breast with risotto cakes ($15) was also rewarding, with not-at-all-dry chicken flecked with large-gauge black pepper, well-browned risotto cakes smuggling a large amount of Parmesan cheese, and a mushroom-Madeira sauce that made you want a soup-bowl of it. On top, for good measure: bits of crisped prosciutto.
The dinner prices at Louisa's may sound slightly steep for the admittedly utilitarian room, but they're using high-quality products (Rosie chicken, Zoe's and CasCioppo meats, local/organic produce as tenable, Shepherd's Grain flour) and the portions are mighty, including the desserts. If you can get through a bread pudding—made with different fruit embedded each week, yummy, gigantic—by yourself, you deserve some kind of medal. And Louisa's deserves some kind of medal for offering economic relief in the form of half-priced bottles of wine—from a thoughtfully chosen, fairly priced list that tends toward Northwest selections—not just to drum up business on Wednesdays, but also when people actually want to go out to eat on Fridays.
I had to be nice in writing this review, because Alcena Plum purchased it in our annual Strangercrombie charity auction, but please note that I did not have to be this nice. What a relief it is to be able to write this to you. Strangercrombie aside, I would like to hereby sincerely recommend Louisa's, whether for a massive cinnamon roll or a carefully prepared, tasty, and also fairly massive dinner. Without pretension and with its heart in the right place, Louisa's is serving nice food in a nice neighborhood space.