Whenever she's baking for Barbara Lee, Roslynn Lady DeCuir reaches for the cocoa and the red food coloring. That's because the congresswoman's favorite dessert is red velvet cake, a Southern specialty whose moist layers gleam deep crimson against pecan-topped cream-cheese frosting. DeCuir caters all of Lee's Bay Area events, including a birthday celebration this past summer where a certain number of candles glowed atop what else? red velvet cake.
And she bakes and serves it every Friday in her new downtown Oakland restaurant, Lady's Place, where it's part of a rotating Southern-dessert list that also includes sweet-potato pie, pecan pie, banana pudding, and peach cobbler. After running a catering company since 1989, garnering such high-profile clients along the way as Shell, Chiron, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon, DeCuir expanded her business eight months ago, setting up shop inside the landmark Latham Square Building, where industrialist Henry J. Kaiser had one of his first offices in the early 1920s.
It's the culmination of a longtime dream. As a child growing up in Oakland, "my original plan was to be a psychiatrist," she explains. "But then when I was sixteen, I became a manager at Togo's. That's when I realized that what I really wanted was to own my own restaurant." After graduating from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, she began adding Bay Area twists to dishes beloved by her Baton Rouge-bred grandparents, using smoked turkey, for instance, instead of the traditional smoked pork in her red-beans-and-rice. She calls it not "soul food" or "Cajun cuisine" but "soulful food and California Cajun cuisine."
And yes, at Lady's Place you can get your po'-boy sandwiches, those high-cholesterol submarines comprising chewy white rolls stuffed with fried shrimp, fried catfish, or roast beef. You can get your Cajun-spiced fried chicken wings, and feel free to splash your deep-fried hush puppies with Tabasco to your heart's content. But say you're a little worried about the continued proper functioning of that heart: then DeCuir will happily make you a falafel with butter-lettuce salad.
Her menu is a rarity among local Southern-food restaurants: It is dotted with vegetarian items such as meatless breakfast sausages, and even vegetarian entrées such as a hearty vegetable lasagna are served in massive portions. She is developing a vegan menu as well. "I've been talking with vegans, getting ideas," DeCuir says. "It's not as if Cajun food and soul food don't include vegetables."
Mainly, though it's all about the meat-cheese-and-salad-stuffed New Orleans-style muffuleta sandwiches; the seafood gumbo; the shrimp Creole swimming in coral-red sauce; and the spicy jambalaya, Louisiana's answer to paella, with plump peppery tomato-tinted rice studded with chicken and smoked-turkey sausage.
Housed inside the office tower, Lady's Place can be entered only through the tower's lobby, not from the street. Outside, passing pedestrians and drivers and schmoozers at cool Cafe Van Kleef, a few doors north are alerted to the restaurant's existence only by a small folding sign perched on the sidewalk. It's so easy to miss. But don't.
One step through the restaurant's door and you pretty much forget you're in an office tower. In a mural spanning one wall, life-size dancers revel against an explosive sunrise around a sax player and a street sign that reads "Bourbon Street," from which dangle actual Mardi Gras bead strands. Ceiling fans twirl in the cozy main area, its other walls painted the exact same carnelian hue as DeCuir's candied yams.
On a large upper tier, up a staircase, green plush booths are overlooked by carnival masks. A sign near the register announces that deep-fried turkey the Cajun-style delicacy and fire hazard will be available in the Thanksgiving season. Because office workers are her steadiest customers, DeCuir opens the restaurant at 7 a.m. on weekdays, and they pop in on their way upstairs for grits, of course, and eggs, and sausage, and those deep-fried, powdered-sugar-dusted pastries called beignets. She's closed on weekends.
But now it is late afternoon and we have the place to ourselves. Between meals, the workers are ensconced in their offices upstairs. Passersby, scarce to start with, are unlikely to pop in off the street. If only they knew about the espresso-infused smoothies here, such as the Caramel Almond Turtle, a sophisticated silken whirl comprising milk, orgeat syrup, caramel syrup, whipped cream, espresso, and ice. The ice has been blended so small as to be imperceptible. You can't crunch the crystals between your teeth. A smoky espresso bitterness parries with the ever-pliant milk, lending DeCuir's concoctions an adult sensibility, mercifully lacking both the headachy coldness and frozen-yogurt overkill that numbs the mouth around typical smoothies.
If only they knew but they don't.
So in virtual hiding, we sip our Turtle, which turns out to be a lot less sweet than some of the savories.
Southerners do love their sucrose. Having ordered a side-dish combo, we taste cane sugar in the collard greens, which are boiled,to within an inch of their innately fibrous lives, and studded with red bell pepper. We taste it in the piquant potato salad, whose sweet-pickle shards are pleasant little surprises. We taste it in moist, authentically crumbly corn muffins. Cut into al-dente coins, the candied yams are cinnamon-speckled masterworks.
Creamy macaroni and cheese and rather bland red-beans-and-rice balance the sweetness, as do hush puppies: deep-fried herbed and onion-speckled cornmeal balls, satisfyingly firm. Patrice was underwhelmed by the jambalaya, tasting what she thought was too much chili powder where filé should be. And she missed the pork-sausage complexity.
As workers begin drifting in for takeout, we sip tall glasses of iced, house-made lemonade so good that it makes us wish the day was sultry-hot, which it is not, and that we were slouched on a porch swing with a wide view of the sky, but we are not. But still. It's that rare natural-born sweet-tartness all too easily forgotten in a Snapple-and-SweeTarts world. The kind of sun-bred brightness that, gray day or not, brings tears of pleasure to unsuspecting eyes.
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