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November 3, 2005

From New Orleans to SoHum


I knew I was going to like Cecil's when we got to the top of the stairs and were greeted by a framed photo of George Porter Jr., bass player for The Meters -- one of my favorite bands ever and a national treasure from New Orleans, a city where music and food go hand in hand.

The roots of the "California Creole" restaurant on Garberville's main drag lie in a New Orleans nightspot called Tipitina's that's a second home to musicians like The Meters, and to those who work in the city's many restaurants.

That's where Chef Cecil Stanfill first met his future business partners, Michael Kohn and Becky Crossland, who were living and working in New Orleans. Fate and cocktails brought them together.

At the end of the '80s, when Cecil was fresh out of a restaurant training program, he went to visit his sister in the Crescent City. She was a student at Tulane University. "I was out on the town and met Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Shannon at this bar," he recalled. "Two weeks later I was living in New Orleans."

Lagasse and Shannon were chefs at Commander's Place, the top restaurant in town and one of several places run by the Brennans, whose name is synonymous with New Orleans food.

"I worked for the Brennan family for a long time, basically my whole time there, something like 15 years," said Cecil. "I started off as a prep cook at Commander's when Emeril was there, then worked all the stations. Jamie took over for Emeril and five years later we won the James Beard [Outstanding Restaurant] Award."

Meanwhile, across town, Michael and Becky were tending bar at Tipitina's. "You know a chef's best friend is a bartender," said Cecil with a laugh. "Tipitina's was the best music club in town. I'd get off work at midnight and go there." Friendship ensued.

Fast forward to 2004. Becky and Michael had both moved to the West Coast: Becky to SoHum, Michael to S.F. Becky returns to N.O. on a visit and runs into Cecil -- at a bar, of course. She asks him to come out to California to cook at a big party she's planning in the hills. Michael comes up for the party, and a plan is hatched.

"The restaurant was for sale," Michael explained. "It was the 707 at the time. Cecil was kind of looking for something new to do. So we bought it." That was a little more than one year ago. Cecil's opened its doors Nov. 11, 2004.

Said Cecil, "I'd always said I'd never own a restaurant. It comes with a lot of headaches. But I thought I'd take a chance. For a lot of people cooking is just a job. For me it's a living, it's something I love to do.

"And here, instead of doing dinner for 800 people a night, it's for 40-60 people. So I can make smaller batches of stuff, and run just a few orders of one thing and sell it out, maybe something that caught my eye. Like today, someone came by with wild mushrooms, so I have 20 pounds of chanterelles. I'm braising some rabbit and I'll use them to make some rabbit dish, or I might make crab/chanterelle wontons, or maybe some raviolis -- I haven't made up my mind yet."

When we had dinner at Cecil's, one of our appetizers was a smoked salmon, goat cheese and wild mushroom wonton served with a sweet and delicious Oriental-style dipping sauce. It wasn't exactly an example of California Creole, but it showed the eclectic influences that go into the menu.

What, you might ask, is California Creole? "Well, Creole food is classical French and Spanish, with influences from Black America from the South," Cecil explained. "New Orleans was a French colony and a Spanish colony, so their food is based on those classical traditions. For instance, jambalaya is like paella. Basically we're using local California ingredients to do the same kind of Creole food I did for years in New Orleans."

An example of the Cali/Creole fusion is the jambalaya dish on the Cecil's menu. As mentioned above, jambalaya is a variation on Spanish paella; both are basically rice dishes. But at Cecil's, spinach fettuccini takes the place of the rice as a medium for spicy andoulille sausage, duck meat and crawfish, in a sauce based on duck stock.

"I was going to hold off on putting dishes like E'touffe'e [a classic Louisiana crayfish stew] on the menu, but people were asking for it. I've been trying to stay away from the Cajun type of style -- Cajun is more country, where Creole is more city food -- but people ask for that and I give it to them.

"I'm still new to this area and I get surprised at what people want to eat here. People here seem to eat more meat than seafood and they like big hearty portions. We go lighter in the summer, but during the winter I'll do things like cassoulet, osso bucco and lamb shanks -- hearty, stewy kind of stuff."

In fact, braised lamb shanks was my main course when I ate at Cecil's: Two shanks leaned against each other on top of a pool of creamy grits flavored with rosemary and goat cheese, all of it slathered in a rich red wine and roasted garlic lamb demi-glace.

"Two things I've been trying to get people to do is eat more grits and use their bread to mop up all their sauces," said Cecil.

Mopping up the sauce was the order of the day when we ate there. We started with an order of New Orleans-style barbeque shrimp: A half dozen prawns surrounding a half a lemon marked on the grill, literally swimming in an amazing pepper/lemon sauce made with beer, Worcestershire and a lot of butter.

We also tried the "Oyster-tini," a handful of very fresh oysters breaded in corn meal and deep fried, then served in a martini glass filled with shredded lettuce and a tangy Creole remoulade. Another winner. A "small plate" order of duck, wild mushroom and sausage gumbo was another hit. In fact, everything was good.

Cecil's first anniversary is next weekend; by chance, they will be closed that night. Almost everyone at Cecil's is involved in the Southern Humboldt Relief Effort, aka SHURE, and they're throwing a Hurricane Katrina benefit at the Mateel in Redway.

"We booked a bunch of bands from New Orleans," said Michael, noting, "of course they're all in different places now. We have Anders Osborne and this band, The 504-Ever -- that's Anders and this guy Smiley Ricks, who is Dr. John's percussionist. Then there's New Orleans Juice, a funk band from down there. One of our chefs plays harmonica in that band. And we have Chris Mulé and the Unmentionables, they're a blues funk band." And of course, the fare at the event will include Cecil's fine gumbo and jambalaya. Good food, good music, a good cause -- I'm there.

The SHURE hurricane benefit takes place Friday, Nov. 11, at the Mateel Community Center. Doors and dinner at 6:30 p.m. Music at 8 p.m. Suggested donation: $25.

You'll find Cecil's upstairs at Jacob Garber Square, 773 Redwood Dr., Garberville. Hours are 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Monday. Reservations are recommended: 923-7007.


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