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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Les Sisters Serves Up a Down-Home Gumbo

Though the big ivory moon over Chatsworth is no Cajun moon, and the nearby rocky hills are home to more coyotes and rattlesnakes than armadillos and alligators, we nevertheless find ourselves eating Cajun, Bayou and Southern style cooking right on Devonshire Boulevard.

Les Sisters is a pleasant, unpretentious, white-walled storefront dining room with cheerful blue tablecloths and silk flowers. The kitchen sits behind a rustic shingled facade; it’s as if the sit-down restaurant has been built around a take-out BBQ stand, and the prevailing mood is down home and relaxed.

At night the neon Open sign casts a cozy orange glow, and pink cloth napkins sit in water glasses like big flowers. The dinner crowd filters in, and nobody, except a birthday party, is particularly dressed up. Les Sisters is the kind of place you can come to when you feel like being at home and out of the house.

A father-and-son team, Ed and Ed Bernard, man the kitchen. We think we’ve seen Ed Sr. before, but we don’t know where until he comes out to greet the birthday party, and a woman blurts out, “You’re an actor, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Wait, no, give me a minute. . . .” She wags her finger at him. “The White Shadow, right?”

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“Right,” he says, and we remember: He was the school principal.

The Eds’ cooking is not fancy; it invokes a Louisiana Junior League cookbook before Paul Prudhomme’s, and might best be described as Southern cooking with a healthful bent. If this sounds contradictory, well, it is. The kitchen is sparing with salt, white sugar, fats, and smoked meats. Although some dishes, such as a wonderful gumbo and a light shrimp Creole, do not suffer, many do. Mild Italian sausage doesn’t quite make it as a substitute for andouille or other smoked sausages, and much as I love the cornmeal muffins (which are sweetened with honey and raisins), I hate that they are served with margarine, and knowing that it’s better for me doesn’t help.

Other idiosyncrasies--that the lemonade and limeade come unsweetened to the table, that you are left to salt your own food--are just fine. At its best, Les Sisters’ meals are genuinely home style, the straightforward, well-prepared, meat-on-your-bones kind of food you want to eat at the end of a tiring workday.

The cooking is uneven, however. The chicken and sausage gumbo is really more like a grab-bag gumbo--there are also crab claws, shrimp and okra--but it has that really delicious earthy, swampy flavor that only good gumbo can have. We love it. But the stuffed mushrooms, allegedly filled with crab, are filled with soft grayish bread crumbs and only an occasional thread of crab meat.

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We like all the oysters--freshly shucked oysters on the half shell, crunchy, deep-fried oysters in a well-seasoned batter, and the oysters Rockefeller with spinach and cheese sauce and browned under the broiler.

Thank goodness the chefs have turned the other cheek to the health perils of deep-fat frying, because they’re really good at it. We’re crazy for the catfish, which at first seems so large and so thickly encrusted with a fried-brown cornmeal batter that it’s daunting; yet somehow, we manage to eat every trace. The house hush puppies, made with white cornmeal, buttermilk and scallions, are great.

Shrimp Creole and a shrimp curry special are modest but satisfying dishes. The house Creole sauce is simply onions, peppers and celery with canned tomatoes; the curry sauce is much the same thing, only thickened and curried. But both are well-spiced; the added shrimp have a good flavor, and we’re content enough to be eating such warming, unpretentious food on a chilly fall night.

There’s an old adage in Cajun country that cooking is an art and all people are artists--which is an indirect way of saying that there’s no definitive recipe for any dish. Nevertheless, I have a serious quarrel with Les Sisters’ jambalaya, which is rice mixed up with sauteed vegetables (90% of which are mushrooms) and some tasteless ground pork. The smothered chicken is even worse: It’s chicken boiled in what tastes like packaged brown gravy and served over undercooked brown rice.

Ed the younger says that shortly, under the Bernard administration, there will be more traditional Southern-style dishes on the menu, including fried chicken, greens, black-eyed peas, all prepared with our best health in mind.

LES SISTERS, 21818 Devonshire Blvd., Chatsworth. (818) 998-0755. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. No bar. Mastercard, Visa, and Diners accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $40.


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