The Cocoanut Grove 1921-1989
I had heard so much about the Cocoanut Grove during my life that I was initially eager to research more about it in the hopes of discovering something new about the place. There was no doubt that it was "the Place" to be seen and photographed - it often resembled a zoo of studio-booked photographers and studio "calculated" seating arrangements. But it also was the most fabricated restaurant/club environment that had ever been created at that time. While visually stunning, it also definitely had the appearance of Hollywood fragility. There were precious few elements of its decor that humanized it further than a rather vague reference to Morrocco. The "Grove" of coconut trees were made of paper Mache, including the cocoanuts and palm fronds - many recycled from Valentino's 1921 classic silent film "The Sheik." In many of these "trees" were rather frightening fake monkeys whose blood red eyes lit up. The theme was indeed supposed to be Moroccan, but if it's in there, it's hard to pick out. Even less so on the Menu.
In any case, what the Cocoanut Grove did have that trumped all of that was music and dancing, often a complete orchestra in fact. The Orchestra Leaders and performers became Stars in their own right in the 20's and in later years the Grove was the site of live radio renditions by Big Band Leader Freddy Martin (Dubbed as "Mr. Cocoanut Grove"), with performances by Guy Lombardo, Rudy Vallee and even a young Merv Griffin, among many others. They had dance contests once a week which were often won by a young Joan Crawford. What we do know is that the best way to describe the place was to think of it as a true Hollywood Soundstage, complete with sets, costumes, props, extras and actors. A perfect place to host the Oscars in1940, especially notable as it was the year that "Gone with the Wind" swept the awards. Bob hope MCed the Golden Globes there a few years later.
As to the Menu, again it was all about projecting the elegance and style the place tried to embody. There was nothing particularly special, but there were some ideas that Henri the French Chef began toying with early on that arguably changed the entire food scene in Southern California for many years to come. Most restaurants and clubs had foreign chefs (actually most of the customers were too, given that in1920 most everyone in Hollywood came from somewhere else!) but rather than exclusively sourcing or importing ingredients to faithfully recreate classic dishes, Henri began experimenting by adapting some of his french classics to feature more local Californian ingredients. He used a ton of California's famous bounty of Citrus and other fruits, including Oranges, Lemons, Grapefruit, Passion Fruit, Avocados, and naturally, Cocoanuts.
While this melding of California tastes and ingredients was certainly subtle, I really believe that this idea that he embraced and that was soon embraced by others was the true start of what we now call "California Cuisine", although it took almost thirty years to take hold fully. Henri liked to sneak in whatever was in season from the vast farmland that still was the majority of Southern California at the time. One person recalled to me that there were avocado slices, limes or oranges on everything, usually as a garnish at first but then later as whole salads or used to decorate and stuff the popular roasted Squab. Now, what is a Squab you may ask? Well, actually it's a Pigeon. Eaten in Europe and in the Middle East for centuries, the french did, (and still do) love their Squab. In this one dish, it can be said that the Grove achieved its Moroccan stance as Morocco was under French rule at the time! In any case, America (at least after the 30's) didn't partake in this delicacy, but the reason for this is probably not their taste, which resembles dark meat in Chicken, but because they are difficult to raise commercially in any significant numbers and the ratio between meat and feed cost is pretty thin. Due to this inability to raise the birds commercially, earlier Americans just went out and shot every decent Pigeon they could find until the preferred Passenger Pigeon actually went extinct. Chicken was of course the preferred fowl in the end. Even the delicate looking "Cornish Game Hens" you can buy now are actually just baby Chickens, although a different mixed breed. Having eaten Squab many times, both in France and England, it's a shame we don't generally have access to them here. But, after a few experiments and discussions with patrons of the Grove, I've come up with a dish that comes pretty close to what the swells at the Cocoanut Grove were probably eating, only a little less gamey. And no, we are not going to the park to catch Pigeons.
Game Hen al la Squab Morocco (sounds fancy, no?)
Now, I need to make a few disclaimers here. There is a huge difference between a Young Pigeon and a Young Chicken. For one thing, Pigeon meat is dark red, and even when cooked to the proper temperature, remains fairly red. Baby Chickens also retain more flesh color when cooked but nothing to the same degree. Squab is also much like duck in that they are particularly fatty and rich. Finally, Pigeon tastes gamey where Chicken does not. Think of it as the difference between a mild fish like Cod and perhaps a Sardine. This challenging recipe attempts to recreate the richness of the Squab without the downside of its overtly Gamey flavor. Start preparing these the day before you plan to cook them. Feeds 4 (everyone gets their own bird.)
4 "Cornish game hens". Defrost in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours if frozen.
4 oz of Chicken Moose Pate (available at any supermarket, just make sure it's chicken and soft.)
4 Tbl unsalted butter
4 Tbl olive oil
2 Tbl Bacon Fat (You can render this by pan-frying a few strips of bacon)
3 Mexican limes cut into quarters (Also called "Key" limes)
1 Large yellow onion in 1/8th inch cubes
3 Tsp fresh thyme leaves (you can use dry, but reduce to 2 Tsp)
3 Tsp Kosher Salt
2 Tsp freshly ground pepper
2 Tsp freshly chopped chives
1 Tsp freshly chopped Parsley
1 Sprig of Rosemary
1 bunch of fresh Mint
1 Tsp Cumin
3 Tsp Sweet Paprika
1 Tsp Coriander Powder
3 Tsp Garlic Powder
1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" to 2" cubes
1 Cup of thinly Julienned carrots (about three medium carrots)
3 Cups of good Chicken Stock
Clean and rinse your Hens. Dry thoroughly, especially the skin. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix all your spices - Thyme, salt, pepper, Cumin, Paprika, Coriander and Garlic.
Use this "dry rub" to rub into every tiny corner of your hens, outside first then inside too. If you can get some under the skin, do so but DO NOT rip the skin. Set aside for at least 6-12 hours (overnight is good).
Preheat your oven to 400F.
Remove your hens from the refrigerator and bring them to room temperature (An hour or two)
Place a wedge or two of lime into each cavity along with a wedge of onion and stuff any remaining space with the mint. leave the cavity open.
In a fairly large Pan or Duch oven, add the butter, bacon grease and oil.
Working in batches, bring the grease to smoke point (when the oil just starts to smoke) and place one or two hens in the pot or skillet at a time, breast up first. Don't "crowd" them. Turn as soon as each side in contact with the pan is well-browned. Once browned thoroughly all over, move hens to a dish and set aside.
On a deep baking sheet or large heat-proof skillet, place the potatoes and the carrots evenly for the hens to rest on.
Add 1 1/2 cup of Chicken Stock to the pan.
Place the four hens on the vegetables and place on the oven's center rack.
Roast without basting for 35 minutes and check temperature.
Lower oven to 325 and continue to roast for another 30 minutes or until your birds reach 160F when measured between breast and thigh. If they are browning too fast, place tin foil loosely over the tops until done.
Continually check the water in the pan and be sure it doesn't run dry or burn. Add more water if necessary.
When hens are done, remove the baking sheet or skillet and place Hens on a serving platter surrounded by the vegetables. Tent with foil and set aside.
Drain the juices from the pan into a small pot (you can add a little more water if necessary.) You should have about a cup of liquid drippings. Add the Pate and heat until warm and mixed well.
Place this sauce in a blender and puree, on high until very smooth.
Strain and then pour sauce over the Hens (or place in a small pitcher for the table as children may find it too livery.) Garnish with a Rosemary sprig and scatter the Parsley and Chives over the vegetables.