New Orleans! Even in the midst of the goings-on (or non-goings-on) of this week's Mardi Gras celebrations, the name conjures up an image of food. One famous native son, Louis Armstrong, used to sign letters "red beans and ricely yours." The great restaurants of the city, such as Antoine's and Brennan's, are known in far corners of the world. New Orleans (and Louisiana) food products are sought after, as are New Orleans recipes. You can fill a sizable shelf with cookbooks that have "New Orleans" in the title.

But in this era of rapid change, is the reputation still warranted? Is New Orleans cooking still distinctive? Is it still good?

Some have argued that it never was very good. It is true that the loose usage of French culinary terms may give a Francophile indigestion before he begins to eat. Also, New Orleans is no frontier outpost of nouvelle cuisine . Flour, butter and spices are used in lavish, even excessive quantities. Restaurant menus are extensive, often so large that top-quality execution across the board is impossible. Without a guide, it is easy to eat badly in even top-rated places. Nonetheless, the native cooking pleases the natives and apparently a sizable majority of the tourists.

But there have been major adjustments in the city's culinary life: some in the aftermath of integration, others due to a new generation taking over the kitchens and management of a number of major restaurants.

New Orleans cooks aren't just holding onto decaying traditions. While there are the inevitable tourist traps and eating places with outdated reputations, a first-hand look at several of the city's restaurants early this month revealed signs of vitality. And a major new cookbook, titled "Creole Feast," gives overdue recognition to the city's best black chefs.

One difficulty in discussing New Orleans food is determining just what it is. The city has Spanish, French, American and Caribbean heritages. It has "Cajun" cooks and "Creole" cooks. "It's a style of cooking that has few rigid rules and... often contains many different versions of the same dish," write Rima and Richard Collin in "The New Orleans Cookbook."

Cajun cooking was imported from Southwest Louisiana by the descendents of French settlers. Creole, according to the Collins, was finally defined as "simply what was indigenous to New Orleans." A1 Pierce, whose Bon Ton is a popular restaurant with claims to Cajun ancestry, explained that Cajun food is characteristically tinted green from the heavy use of herbs, green onions (called shallots locally) and green peppers. Creole cooking, by contrast, relies on red-colored spices and will often call for tomatoes or tomato sauce and wine.

"A Cajun cook needs only one pan for cooking, but a French cook needs two," Pierce said in a masterful stroke of oversimplification. "One for the food and one for the sauce. That's the difference."

As for Creole, Dr. Rudy Lombard, an urban planner, journalist and historian, points out in "Creole Feast" that the black chefs and cooks singled out "are all primarily self-taught rather than formally trained," the "proud heirs to the rich legacy of Creole cuisine they have inherited from black professional cooks" and with a style that "encompasses a creative improvisation not unlike that found among traditional New Orleans black jazz musicians."

Of course in New Orleans both blacks and whites play jazz, often in the same ensemble. So some dedicated native white cooks -- Warren LeRuth of LeRuth's restaurant in nearby Gretna and Paul Prudhomme of Commander's Palace among them -- have helped establish the city's first formal program for training young cooks. These chefs, and others, also have been reworking and refining old recipes to keep their cooks alert and their menus in touch with the times.

In "Creole Feast," which Lombard composed with the veteran chef Nathaniel Burton, the subjects emerge as individual artists, not as stereotypes in high, white toques. Burton, whose restaurant career extends over 40 years, talks about dishes he devised, including shrimp and oyster brochette, oysters Caribbean and a crepe souffle. Then he admits his favorite dish is one his mother made, new potatoes cooked with salt, meat and onions. "And you know," he concludes, "I never found out exactly how she cooked them."

The bulk of the book is given over to recipes. But the first part, in which the chefs are introduced (men and women), serves as a fascinating seminar. Raymond Thomas Sr. explains how gumbo should be done at home, and the fact that Henry Carr has a different technique just shows there's more than one way to cook a crab. They and the others, 16 in all, reveal tips and techniques as they talk. But they also reveal an underlying pride and dedication.

"A good cook stays with the pots," says Leah Chase. "If you don't have time to cook, I think you should just get a sandwich."

"To be a successful cook," echos Austin Leslie, "you have to take tender care and watch it.... You can't put food in a slow fryer and go downtown. You have to stay with it."

It takes more than a chef to make a restaurant function, however, and in two other vital areas New Orleans restaurants are fortunate.

Raw ingredients -- seafood, rice, herbs and spices, even beef -- are raised or harvested nearby. They are readily available and not as expensive as they are elsewhere.

Also, there is an ample pool of local labor to staff kitchens and dining rooms. The major New Orleans restaurants are large and some of them are open every day for long hours. After a period when restaurant work seemed to hold little appeal to the young, a new generation of waiters and cooks are beginning to show pride and take pleasure in their work. It's a path to upward mobility in a port city that still has large ethnic pockets and where service industries are crucial to the local economy.

(New Orleans waiters should not be judged by their dark suits and ties. Despite their appearance, most have never been infected by continental snobbery. They are as likely to mispronounce the name of a French wine as any other American and their advice is sincere and usually helpful.)

You can eat as well (some say better) dining simply and informally -- on a poor-boy sandwich or on raw oysters at a standup bar -- as well as in the famous French Quarter places.The neighborhood restaurant still survives. Families patronize the New Orleans restaurants and in time the grown children will bring their families. And families often pass the ownership along from one generation to the next.

Galatoire's, on Bourbon Street, has survived a change of generations in the management and is aglow with sparkling mirrors and shining brass. The napkins are outsized. A Sazarac cocktail comes without ice, but everything has been chilled including the glass. The bread is all crust and air and you eat an enormous amount of it. Order fish, they say, and the fish is good: Crusty fried sea trout swimming in a sea of butter and almonds, shrimps dressed with a tangy remoulade sauce that no Frenchman would recognize, plump oysters cooked in a casserole.

Two oyster houses, Acme and Felix, stand almost opposite on another on Iberville Street. You stand at the worn stone bar across from the shucker. It's like casino gambling. As long as you're willing, he'll open the oysters and deal. You mix your own cocktail sauce and sip beer. There are tables, but the action is at the counters. I continue to find the bar at Felix the more appealing of the two.

The Bon Ton is, according to some natives, more expensive than it should be and the food lacks that hot pepper punch. But from a Washington point of view, the prices are moderate and the spice is nice. The brick-walled room is comfortable if crowded and the "crawfish dinner" presents an opportunity to try half-a-dozen preparations of these famous miniature shellfish. There's also an appetizer combination of fried crawfish and catfish and a memorable bread pudding.

In Gretna, LeRuth's continues to hold its title as New Orleans gastronomic champion. Two sons have joined Warren LeRuth and help him to prepare some exceptional seafood dishes. The sauces, sorbets and desserts are of particular note. Both the decor and service are impressively restrained and dignified, which is more than can be said for some of the loud customers.

At Chez Helene, Austin Leslie holds court as various members of his family direct the uncertain flow of food and customers. He is one of the chefs featured in "Creole Feast," a man who appears to distain pretense and secrecy. Ask and a recipe is yours. The place is known for fried chicken, stuffed green peppers, stuffed eggplant, greens and a number of other "soul food" dishes. Don't overload, however. The bread pudding is justly famous. Unlike most other family restaurants in black neighborhoods, a good percentage of the customers at Chez Helene are white. There are reports that fame has affected Leslie's prices, but if they are no longer cheap, they are distinctly moderate.

Commander's Palace, an enormous restaurant uptown in the Garden District, has undergone a considerable transformation since one branch of the Brennan family took it over about five years ago. Paul Prudhomme, one of those rare chefs who is as articulate as he is talented, has been pruning the menu and introducing a series of new dishes. His artichoke Prudhomme (with an oyster and artichoke filling), filet of beef "debris" and turtle soup are extraordinary. On Sundays there is brunch, with several imaginative egg dishes and two superb jazz trios moving from room to room.

At all these restaurants, the temptation to overeat (not to mention the temptation to overdrink) is considerable. Even if moderation is logical, somehow it doesn't make sense.

Dr. Rudy Lombard suggests to those who try the recipes from "Creole Feast" that they practice restraint in eating instead of cutting back on the quantity of ingredients and "taking the essence out of the food."

It's not easy.

COMMANDER'S PALACE OYSTER AND ARTICHOKE CASSEROLE

(8 to 10 servings)

1/4 cup melted unsalted butter, plus 10 tablespoons

3/4 cup chopped green onions, tops only

36 oysters

8 fresh artichoke bottoms, cut in thick julienne strips, or two cans (8 1/2 ounces) waterpacked artichoke hearts, rinsed well, drained and sliced.

1 1/2 cups oyster water * or 1 1/2 cups cold water

1 1/4 teaspoons seafood seasoning or salt, pepper, thyme and garlic to taste

6 tablespoons flour (FOOTNOTE)

* To make oyster water, pour 1 1/2 cups of cold water over oysters and let stand 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain oysters.(END FOOT)

Saute chopped green onions in 1/4 cup butter. Add oyster water * and seasonings and bring to boil. (FOOTNOTE)

* To make oyster water, pour 1 1/2 cups of cold water over oysters and let stand 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain oysters.(END FOOT)

Make roux with flour and 10 tablespoons butter. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until mixture is a milkchocolate brown. (If oysters are large and plump, you will need more flour in the roux.)

Add roux to oyster water and seasonings and whip until sauce reaches consistency of heavy cream. Add artichoke bottoms (or hearts) and oysters, remove from heat and place in a warm place (such as the top of a double boiler) until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, stir sauce well and adjust the consistency, if necessary. Place in individual ramekins (or large casserole). Run under broiler until bubbly.

NATHANIEL BURTON'S OYSTERS CARIBBEAN

(6 servings)

4 green onions

4 tablespoons butter

1 quart oysters

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 cups cream sauce (see below)

6 cups hot steamed rice

Saute onions in butter about 8 minutes. Brown oysters in lightly greased, very heavy skillet or griddle. When brown, add to onions and simmer. Add parsley, Worcestershire and cream sauce. Simmer at least 10 minutes. Serve with hot rice.

Cream Sauce: In a saucepan, blend 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons butter and cook for 5 minutes on medium flame to make white roux. Add 1 1/2 cups milk. Stir and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until mixture thickens. Makes about 2 cups.

From "Creole Feast"

BON TON RESTAURANT STUFFED EGGPLANT

(12 servings)

6 medium eggplants

4 bell peppers, chopped

4 medium onions, chopped

1/2 cup celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 stick butter

1pound fresh, small shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 pound white lump crabmeat

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil eggplants for 8 to 10 minutes. Cut in half and dig out the pulp. Place pulp in bowl. Save eggplant shells. Saute peppers, onion, celery and garlic all together until limp. Then add eggplant pulp and saute until dry. Add shrimp. Cook for another few minutes. Put all of these ingredients in another bowl and fold in crabmeat and parsley. Cool. Add enough bread crumbs to give mixture stuffing consistency and place in the eggplant shells. Sprinkle a few more bread crumbs on top and then sprinkle with the paprika. Dot with butter and bake until brown (approximately 15 minutes).

From "Creole Feast"

SHERMAN CRAYTON'S ORIGINAL REMOULADE SAUCE

(Makes 3 to 4 pints)

3 cups cooking oil

2 cups hot Creole or Dijon mustard

3 cups red wine vinegar

1/2 cup paprika

2 cups celery, chopped fine

1 cup parsley, chopped fine

2 cups green onions, chopped fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix oil, mustard and vinegar and blend for 15 to 20 minutes. Add paprika and stir. Mix in chopped ingredients and serve at room temperature or refrigerate for several hours. Serve over boiled shrimp, fish or beef. (If sauce separates after refrigeration, shake to reblend ingredients.)

Note: This recipe may be made in reduced quantity. If so, mixing time may be shortened.

From "Creole Feast"

BON TON RESTAURANT BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKEY SAUCE

(8 servings)

1 loaf French bread

1 quart milk

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 cup raisins

3 tablespoons melted margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak bread in milk. Crush with hands to make sure milk is soaked through. Add eggs, sugar, vanilla, raisins and stir well. Pour margarine in bottom of heavy 9-by-14inch baking pan. Add bread mixture, and bake till very firm, approximately 40 minutes. Cool the pudding, cube it and put in individual dessert dishes. When ready to serve, add whiskey sauce and heat under broiler for a few minutes.

Whiskey Sauce: Cream 1 cup sugar with 1 stick butter and cook in a double boiler until very hot and well dissolved. Add 1 well-beaten egg and whip very fast so egg doesn't curdle. Cool and add 2 ounces bourbon whiskey, or to taste.

From "Creole Feast"

COMMANDER'S PALACE PRALINE PARFAIT

(6 servings)

1 1/2 cups white Karo syrup

1 1/2 cups dark Karo syrup

1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

1 teaspoon vanilla

Dash nutmeg

Dash cinammon

12 scoops vanilla ice cream

1/2 pint whipped cream

6 cherries

Mix first six ingredients together. Serve over two scoops of vanilla ice cream per serving; top with whipped cream and a cherry.

Note: The topping will provide many more than six servings. It keeps well covered at room temperature.