Cafe Society

All Things to All People

Andouille gumbo and tortilla soup, fried mushrooms with truffled dipping sauce, enchiladas con queso and steak frites, crabcakes with chipotle coulis, pierogi, Asian pot stickers with ginger sauce, chicken piccata, cheeseburgers served with a bottle of Chimay Red, miso soup and Hawaiian tuna salad. And sushi (on request) from the sushi bar next door.

Magnolia -- the three-year-old brainchild of Peter and Mara Soutiere, partner Tim Ackerman and chef Chris Pierce -- is a restaurant with a serious identity crisis. It's everyone's favorite Cajun-Creole-Belgian-Mexican-Asian-Polish-fusion-steak-and-seafood restaurant with a sushi bar attached. A culinary gangbang, like Ecstasy Night at the U.N. commissary, like a primer on world cuisine written by Mark Bittman off his ADD meds.

And that's just tonight. Tomorrow or next week or next month, it'll be Indo-Asian-French-Italian fusion with English bangers and tacos, then Bulgarian-Lyonnaise-Argentine with handmade Piedmontese pastas, pho and Kansas City barbecue. Plus edamame. Plus California rolls. With a wine list featuring producing regions as varied as the cuisine, and a custom cocktail lineup that torpedoes all the chocolate martinis and tortured cosmos and sugar-rum weirdness out there with something as simple as a Cherry Coke: cola and cherry-infused vodka, served tall, with a straw.

For the menu alone, I might have mocked this place mercilessly had my meals gone just a little differently -- taken the lineup apart piece by piece, then veered off on some ill-considered food-history jag about Escoffier and H.L. Mencken on a coach tour of the best Asian restaurants in the Pyrenees, or Anthony Bourdain smuggling pierogi out of Warsaw in his underpants. But once I tried a few things, I knew I couldn't. Pierce's housemade andouille sausages were really very good -- stiff, smoky, precisely grill-marked but not overdone at all, served split lengthwise and in a skin with just the right amount of snap. No, they weren't brats (which would be the historically and regionally appropriate sausage to serve with a pierogi), but I don't like brats all that much and I do like andouille, and I love a nice pierogi, so, oddly, this plate worked for me. The skin on the pierogi was pan-seared an ideal golden-brown, and it was stuffed with a lovely, smooth potato-and-onion filling cooled out with a big dollop of crème fraîche off to the side -- because if a big serving of sausage and dumplings aren't enough to blue-light you straight into the nearest cardiac emergency unit, then eating sour cream by the spoonful should certainly put you over the edge.

At Magnolia, I found myself eating steak frites, a plate of New Orleans-style beer-BBQ'd shrimp with a spicy red-pepper broth and really tasty sweet potatoes, and vegetable risotto topped with a lace of pepita oil. And I barely flinched at the Disneyland-food-court, Parade-of-Nations, It's-a-Small-World-After-All weirdness of it. Or the fact that I was eating all of it in the middle of Lafayette, where Taco Bell is a reasonable choice for Mexican and Olive Garden is haute-fucking-cuisine.

The strip mall where Magnolia sits is one of those prefab retail outposts that get dropped into some farmer's front forty just ahead of the condo complexes going in -- larval sprawl, on a street that didn't even exist five years ago, vanguard of the developers' advancing horde. Magnolia's front door (and I am not making this up) looks out over a dog bakery -- where they sell dog treats, I assume, not baked goods made from dogs -- and a franchised tutoring outlet called Mathnasium. Around the corner was a deli called Blue Sky that didn't make it -- the "For Lease" signs up in the windows, the equipment under wraps -- and already there's another deli squatting in one of the strip mall's other units. And next door, Sushi Mara (which shares the same building, the same owners, the same front door and the same hostess stand as Magnolia) is Lafayette's only sushi restaurant, which is on par with being the only Algerian restaurant in Toledo or the only hamburger stand on Mars.

The Soutieres and Ackerman are restaurant veterans. Q's in Boulder, the long-gone Two Bitts Bistro -- they've been around. But Magnolia is their first shot at ownership, the first time they've had a place of their own. Peter Soutiere is a manager and a sommelier, Mara a trained chef (a former sous in Q's kitchen) who now mostly handles the books, Ackerman a manager and waiter. Pierce came with a fine-dining background and even did a few months at Q's himself before he was poached by the partners. They decided to make their stand in Lafayette because they knew the town had no upscale eateries that could compare to their vision of Magnolia.

In order to get out of the radius of chain restaurants crowding the Lafayette landscape -- and because the deal on the space vacated by the Platinum Grill was too good to pass up -- they put Magnolia in this out-of-the-way location. They added Sushi Mara about a year later, putting the sushi bar in an unused section of the originally even more massive dining room. And they kept adding more dishes. Crabcakes and sausage, pierogi and pot stickers. The groundless menu offers all things to all people -- because without Magnolia, there'd be nothing for nobody.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan