If there were a book heaven, it might be like The Last Bookstore, which opened on 5th Street (weirdly, the address is on Spring Street) in downtown L.A.'s Old Bank District this June.
You enter a cool, soaring space with tall pillars and an aged mosaic floor from its previous life as a bank building. Comfy couches and chairs are for browsing through your finds. Eventually, there will be a coffee bar. Parts of the cavernous room are still raw concrete, because the move is recent. The store was previously in smaller quarters on Main Street, about a block away from its new digs.
At the rate bookstores are disappearing, The Last Bookstore's name may be more factual than whimsical. Metropolis Books, near its old site on Main, will close at the end of September.
It's a surprise to find in this gritty strip of downtown what looks like a massive library, dark and quiet. Only chatting isn't forbidden. And not many libraries have an elephant head with grandly curving tusks mounted high on one wall. In another quirky touch, the check-out counter appears to rest on stacks of books.
The stock is used, but the books aren't tattered. They're like new, only at affordable prices. "People who don't have $25 to buy a new book can come here and find a great book for $5, " says manager Katie Orphan, wearing an "I Work Here" tag. Or less. Some are only $1.
The large cookbook section runs the gamut from oldtimers such as Escoffier's Ma Cuisine to books by Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. Julia Child is in short supply at the moment. This may change, because thousands of books are still in storage. And customers regularly lug in sacks of discards to sell or trade.
The cookbooks are "curated," says Orphan, to avoid an overload of, for example, 1980s Sunset cookbooks. Right now, the stock ranges from Italian and French to Indonesian, Chinese and regional American cookbooks.
The Last Bookstore devotes sections to local authors and books about L.A. The cookbook shelves offer local work too, including A Cook's Tour of Mexico by Westsider Nancy Zaslavsky and two copies of Judy Zeidler's International Deli Cook Book, featuring recipes from the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica. Zeidler autographed both copies. If you want favorite Indian dishes from former LA Philharmonic conductor Zuben Mehta, they're in The Cook & the Cadenza, a Philharmonic benefit cookbook put out in 1969.
And you can see the young Wolfgang Puck on the cover of Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking, which was published in 1981. By then Puck had moved on from Ma Maison to Spago and Chinois on Main. But the recipes are from Ma Maison and its cooking school, Ma Cuisine.
For a taste of nostalgia, try Puck's recipe for Shrimp with Mustard (Crevettes à la Moutarde), which, he said, was the most requested appetizer at Ma Maison.
Ma Maison's Shrimp with Mustard
From: Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking, by Wolfgang Puck.
6 to 8 medium shrimp per person
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons mild-flavored oil, such as almond or safflower
2 medium shallots, minced
1 bunch fresh tarragon, minced
½ cup dry sherry
½ cup heavy cream
½ pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon minced chives
1. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Using 2 large sauté pans, heat the oil until it begins to smoke. Over very high heat, sauté the shrimp for 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate, set aside and keep warm.
2. To each sauté pan, add one minced shallot and 1 tablespoon minced tarragon. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and then combine the sauce in one pan.
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3. Add the cream and reduce the sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Whisk in the butter, one small piece at a time. Whisk in the mustard, just at the last minute. Do not let the sauce boil, or the mustard will become grainy. Correct seasoning to taste.
Presentation: Arrange shrimp decoratively on serving plates, nap with sauce, and sprinkle with chives.
Suggested wine: A Fume blanc.
Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.tableconversation.com and @foodandwinegal and on Facebook.