In terms of transportive restaurant experiences, there are few places to which I'm less interested in being transported than Bourbon Street. I love New Orleans with the same clichéd but mighty passion that strikes almost anyone with half a soul who's spent time there. But Bourbon Street, which has become a nightmarish, drunken frat party version of itself, is by far the city's least interesting pocket of culture, unless you're super into mediocre strip clubs with coeds puking up multicolored daiquiris out front. Finding anything good to eat or drink on Bourbon Street is practically impossible, making it even less appealing as inspirational fodder for a far-flung eating and drinking establishment.
So when Preux & Proper opened in late 2014, promising to bring a slice of Bourbon Street to downtown L.A., I wasn't particularly intrigued, despite the fact that it inhabited the gorgeous, flatiron-shaped building on the corner of Spring and Main. The space had been beautifully built out by chef Casey Lane and his partners for a short-lived restaurant named the Parish. When Preux & Proper's owners took over, they put some spinning frozen daiquiri machines behind the bar downstairs and some NOLA-inspired food on the menu upstairs, as well as a moonshine-themed cocktail menu. It was all very concept-y.
Then, in February of this year, it was announced that Samuel Monsour was taking over the kitchen at Preux & Proper. Monsour is a chef who garnered some attention for his series of pop-up events titled Antebellum Voodoo Noir. The events attracted some criticism, both for their name and for the verbiage Monsour used to describe them ("inspired by an era troubled with suffering and rich with soul"). The evening, which cost diners $333 a head, included an actor playing a Creole witch doctor spewing "prayers" and threatening animal sacrifice on a live goat. That Monsour spent some of his formative years in North Carolina makes this tone-deafness (a kind assessment, but it's what I'm going with) even harder to comprehend. Chefs and artists can and should and do find inspiration in all kinds of places, but florid romanticized pantomime — culinary or otherwise — of an era defined by our nation's darkest shame is pure poison, no matter how good the foie gras with spoonbread tastes.
At Preux & Proper, Monsour is thankfully cooking without the assistance of actors/witch doctors and without any specific reference to the Old South. Downstairs, the frozen daiquiris are still the main draw, along with a bar menu culled from the longer dinner menu served upstairs, in a room that's less Bourbon Street and more Garden District. When this building was the Parish, the triangle-shaped room with its long central bar was one of the prettiest places to eat in town, and it's lost little of its charm.
The food's inspiration is New Orleans, but Monsour is a New American chef with a giddy creative streak, and nothing on the menu is classic or straightforward. This is Southern food in heavy drag, an over-the-top display of what the cuisine might be if you put it in spangles and a push-up bra.
That means all kinds of silliness, such as poutine made with "turkey neck gravy," burrata, collards and coleslaw. There's "derrty skreet" corn on the cob showered with cracklins, American cheese and ranch dressing, and a foie gras torchon with sorghum and "fruity pebbles."
But drag is fun and Monsour can cook, so the enterprise works a lot of the time. There aren't many things on the menu here I'd count as a bargain, but the fried Mississippi catfish, advertised as a small plate, is actually a giant pile of crispy, cornmeal-dusted, tender-fleshed fish, scattered with fried pickles and laid over a smear of remoulade. It would be a fairly unbalanced meal on its own, but it would fill you up nonetheless. On the other hand, $15 collard greens are a tough sell, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't thoroughly enjoy the soupy greens shot through with shreds of pork shoulder and Fresno chili hot sauce and topped with a wobbly egg.
The stewy red peas that come with the house-made andouille almost steal the show from the sausage itself and highlight one of the crops that have recently been revived from the coastal Carolinas. Monsour does a boneless beef rib that's easily dinner for two (and priced as such, at $44) and is everything that's good about tender, rich, beefy beef, decked out with parsnip puree, sweet slivers of crispy yam and a demi-glace made from the pot liquor.
These dishes, the ones that work, are relatively restrained, certainly compared with the things that left me overwhelmed and confused. Why would you put coconut in your Anson Mills grits, then slap on sweet stewed peaches and a bourbon-butter glaze? Is this dessert? It is not — it's the setup for a duck breast entree that is just a bowl of too-sweet but under-seasoned glop with some nicely cooked duck buried within.
In New Orleans, if you ordered a po' boy burger, you'd get a po' boy bun with a burger patty filling; here you get a burger with fried oysters on top. Monsour co-authored a book about burgers that is mainly recipes for over-the-top burger toppings (such as glazed donuts and "fried ketchup"), so putting egregious stuff on burgers is obviously a thing of his. To each his own — I just can't tell you that fried oysters do anything for a burger, or vice versa.
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There are times when Monsour's cleverness is entirely too clever, neglecting to take deliciousness into account, and other times when it hits that perfect note, when you understand why certain ingredients go together but see the couplings in a whole new way. This is true in the deconstructed "holy trinity" — the onions, celery and green bell peppers that are the building block for so much Creole cooking — that you'll find on his beef-heart toast. Here they're shaved raw over thinly sliced smoked beef heart, and the vegetal perfumes of all three come together in a way that's reminiscent of a Creole stew and also wholly different. I also loved the okra gumbo with sticky rice, "tobacco leeks" and crispy onions, though its swampy flavor reminded me more of some kind of Afghan stew than anything I've ever eaten in Louisiana.
We've seen a lot of pseudo-Southern cooking in Los Angeles in recent years, and it's hard to tease out the subtle difference between honest modernization and what feels like a garish cartoon version of a regional cuisine. The distinction matters less if the food tastes good, I suppose, and in the case of Monsour's cooking, it mostly does. Preux & Proper isn't going to transport you anywhere in particular, but one of the prettiest buildings in downtown Los Angeles with a too-sweet sazerac in your hand isn't the worst place you could end up. Better than Bourbon Street, certainly.
PREUX & PROPER | Two stars | 840 S. Spring St., downtown | (213) 896-0090 | preuxandproper.com | Sun.-Thu., 4-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Upstairs dining room opens at 6 p.m. | Entrees, $24-$44 | Full bar | Street parking