Once diners step inside Vieux Carre NOLA Kitchen and dig into an order of crawfish hand pies, fried catfish or bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits, it's suddenly easy to forget they're actually 2,300 miles from New Orleans.
After a complete remodel, the new West Central restaurant's 100-year-old space evokes someplace even older, like the iconic historic structures throughout New Orleans' famed French Quarter. Exposed brick walls contrast with a black tin ceiling and stained glass accents with faux white-washed walls covered in thematic framed artwork.
Vieux Carre owner Korri McElfresh says when word first spread about the new restaurant, announced last year, she "had a lot of people say to me 'Oh, so like Mardi Gras. Are you going to have beads?' But no, that's not what I'm going for. It's so much more than that."
As soon as she settled on a New Orleans-inspired Creole and Cajun focus, McElfresh booked a trip to the Gulf Coast city for research and development.
"I just ate my way through NOLA as much as I could, and I averaged about 10 miles a day walking," she says. "I wanted to walk and look at all the buildings, and went to as many history outposts as I could."
She sampled crawfish and alligator and famous New Orleans-originated cocktails the Sazerac and Vieux Carre at the city's renowned Carousel Bar & Lounge. The latter, a drink of rye whiskey, cognac and sweet vermouth, is, of course, served at McElfresh's restaurant.
McElfresh's vision for Vieux Carre (pronounced "voo cah-ray"), which in French means "old square," is a Northwest homage to the culture and cuisine of NOLA.
"I've been in the food industry in Spokane for quite a while, and I love the restaurants we have here," she says.
But when branching out from her past role in management for Eat Good Group's restaurants, she envisioned bringing something different to the region's existing food offerings.
"I wanted a little diversity, not another beet salad or flatbread or Brussels sprouts," she says. "There are already a few places that have soul food, and French restaurants aren't as approachable as we like them to be. So I thought maybe Spanish influences, but there are so many Spanish places. I was talking to a friend of mine, Amber Park, and she was like, 'Korri, you just described New Orleans!'"
While the remodel of the restaurant's space on the first floor of a historic, Victorian-esque brick building just west of the Spokane County Courthouse was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, McElfresh didn't wait to begin searching for a chef to carry out her vision for Vieux Carre's menu.
"I probably interviewed 60 people all over the U.S.," she says, before eventually connecting with chef Logan Maus.
Formerly based in St. Louis, Missouri, Vieux Carre's executive chef also has ties to NOLA, having grown up visiting grandparents who lived nearby.
"That is where a lot of my Cajun and Creole influence comes from," Maus says. "On top of that is the fact that St. Louis is the sister city to New Orleans — almost all the celebrations we do are the second best version in America, and no matter what cuisine a restaurant does, they always have a king cake, crawfish, oysters and things like that."
Maus and his fiance had already been hoping to relocate to the Pacific Northwest when all the pieces fell into place and he accepted the offer to become Vieux Carre's chef.
"It was almost as if in a weird way destiny was leading us to this place," he says.
McElfresh and Maus closely collaborated on the menu with the goal of evoking traditional New Orleans flavors and fare by leveraging the nostalgic power of food, paired with thoughtful culinary craftsmanship.
"My approach to cooking has always been quite simple: A recipe is a recipe, and any good cook or chef should be able to read a recipe or take something from a happy memory or trip and turn a recipe into that memory," Maus says. "Korri had a vision of what she wanted the place to be, so then it was simply me bringing things to the table and testing recipes until we came to the flavors she was looking for."
Maus' top three picks from Vieux Carre's debut menu are the crawfish hand pies ($11), beignets ($5) and crawfish boil ($21). All of the crawfish served at the restaurant is sourced locally from the Snake River, and Maus expects weekly deliveries to continue through late August before the season ends.
"Being able to get access to live crawfish in Washington and being locally sourced is so much fun," he says.
Other traditional Southern, Creole and Cajun-inspired dishes from Maus and team include whipped honey cornbread ($7), red beans and rice with andouille sausage ($16), fried chicken ($22), gumbo ($9) and jambalaya ($18), and several salads like poached pear ($14) and panzanella ($12). Lunch service launched last week with several more handhelds: muffaletta ($15), po' boy ($13) and fried catfish ($13).
In the bar, about a third of the cocktail menu ($10-$14) is devoted to classic New Orleans drinks, of course including the iconic Sazerac and Vieux Carre alongside the gin rickey, hurricane, mint julep and more.
"The environment and atmosphere that Korri has created is one of a very Southern nature," Maus reflects. "That Southern charm is when you can be invited into someone's house, and it doesn't feel awkward — like 'Grab yourself a drink, this is just as much your home as it is mine,' This atmosphere was brought here." ♦
Vieux Carre NOLA Kitchen • 1403 W. Broadway Ave. • Open Mon-Thu 11 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-11 pm, Sun 3-9 pm • vieuxcarrespokane.com • 509-495-1400