RICHARD Nixon likes the lump crab meat souffle'. Frank Sinatra prefers the Lobster Whiskey. Mary Martin, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Gazzara and "Dr. J" like just about everything on the menu at L'Auberge, a popular French restaurant on Philadelphia's Main Line owned by former golf champion Helen Sigel Wilson.
At the age of 64, sharp as a Sabatier, Wilson is entering her 41st year as a restaurateur, an achievement for anyone in the business, and almost unheard of for a woman. Her only complaint is that when "Ol' Blue Eyes" stopped in last month, he blew a kiss to Barbara Brookshier (wife of CBS sportscaster Tom Brookshier) and shook hands with her. No smooch on the lips. No crooning a tune. Wilson, who looks more like Miss Ellie than Miss Universe, was heartbroken.
"He said, 'Boy, what a nice grip you have.' " She breaks into a hearty laugh. "Geez. I was destroyed."
She sips a club soda and nibbles the fried shrimp set on the table by a waiter. Glib and gutsy, Wilson says the restaurant business is like a golf game. You win some. You lose some. And sometimes you land in the rough.
She loves to gamble, once taking a bus down to Atlantic City and returning in a limo after a few successful rolls of the dice. When her golf team at The Philadelphia Country Club won the interclub championship in 1979, she climbed on top of the tables and did a lively tap dance. She disdains "nouvelle cuisine," loves good food, but can hardly toast an english muffin.
"You know the only reason I'm successful in the restaurant business? Because I'm so darn insecure. I can't stand having anyone complain. I want them to be happy, and to take money for it is embarrassing."
Still, she says, "I know what people like." Steaks more than sushi, chops more than chopsticks and butternut chocolate sundaes more than kiwi fruit.
The only complaint she gets is that the martinis are too strong. "And I think that's a compliment."
Even her competitors refuse to find fault with her formula.
"She is the place on the Main Line," says Kathleen Mulhern, owner of The Garden, a trendy Center City eaterie. "She knows her audience and satisfies it well. She knows what they like. They're very loyal to her." In a profession known as much for its feuding as its fooding, Mulhern says, "There isn't a bad thing to say about her. She's a good person. And the restaurant is charming."
L'Auberge is decorated in a provincial French style, with dark wood, copper pots, antiques and fresh flowers. The Atrium, lit by a skylight and filled by a huge fig tree, is where Richard Nixon likes to sit when he comes with Julie and David Eisenhower, who live nearby.
Wilson is known as a practical joker, but when it comes to work, she's a serious businesswoman.
"She a tough cookie to work for," says Julie Dannenbaum, author and cooking teacher who served as a food consultant to Wilson in the early 1970s. "But one of the most generous people in the world." Dannenbaum laughs. "And she was the first person in the City of Philadelphia to put quiche on the menu!"
"She's very exacting," says Jane Levine, Wilson's current food consultant, who introduced fresh pasta on the menu this year. "But I like that. The worst thing would be having someone who's ambivalent."
Helen Wilson got into the restaurant business by accident. The year was 1942 and her brother was called into the service. He needed someone to take over his Chestnut Street restaurant, 1918. Helen Sigel was, at that time, a 23-year-old amateur golfer, and twice would finish as runner-up in the U.S. Woman's Amateur Championship. "He called me up on Friday and said, 'I'm going away on Monday. Come in.' So I went in. I was so dumb."
Wilson's father owned another Philadelphia eatery, Bahr's, at 19th and Market streets. ("He was in the wholesale meat business. They owed him so much money he finally took over the restaurant." She pauses. "Which is going to happen here any minute.") Her older brother ran The Whitemarsh Tavern. There was never any question, she says, that a woman couldn't do as well, if not better. "I never had any trouble at all," she says. "I guess I didn't know if I was being put down. I wasn't raised that way, to think I was anything less than a man."
By 1945, she had turned the restaurant around.
"When my brother came back a year later, he couldn't believe it. I had so many people in there. He said, 'Geez, I used to go downstairs and sleep until closing time.' "
Several years later Wilson went out on her own, opening a new restaurant at 1523 Walnut St. She had also fallen in love with an ex-Marine named Charlie Wilson, who would become her husband and partner.
"I had all this good food and all this good business, but I suddenly decided I didn't want to be good. I wanted to be great."
She hit on the novel idea of hiring a food consultant, a practice widely used now in the restaurant business but unheard of in 1955. It was James Beard who took the job at Helen Sigel Wilson's. Once a week, Beard shuttled from New York to Philadelphia to consult on the menus, often bringing his own recipes. He was paid $50 per visit and the first thing he whipped up was an omelet.
In 1967, mindful that most of her customers were Main Liners, Wilson opened L'Auberge. The name was chosen by Beard. Four years later, she sold her downtown operation and concentrated on the suburbs.
"The only trouble I run into, there's a certain group of people. It's like reverse snobbery," she says. "They think Main Line means cashmere sweaters and sneakers. A lot of people think we're snobs, but I was born in Philadelphia and raised on a farm."
Wilson's life has not been all triumph. Seven years ago, their only daughter, Kirk, died after falling from a horse. It was, friends say, a tragedy Wilson has still not fully recovered from.
"It took me a lot of psychiatrists and a lot of friends and a lot of being with my son to cope," she says. For three years, Wilson retreated from the business. The only thing that brought her back, she says, was the decision to renovate L'Auberge, eventually spending more than $150,000, and installing the Wilsons' son Siggie as mai tre d'.
"I'm doing things differently now than I did five years ago," she says. "It's like anything that you know a lot about, you don't know anything about."
One thing she does know is what the Wilsons eat on the cook's night out. "Pizza." COEUR A LA CREME (6 to 8 servings) 1/2 pound cottage cheese 1/2 pound cream cheese 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla Pinch salt 1 cup heavy cream, whipped Raspberry sauce: 12-ounce package frozen red raspberries 4 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons cassis liqueur
Combine cottage cheese, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and salt. Mix thoroughly. Whip heavy cream and fold into cheese mixture. Fill heart-shaped ramekins (with holes) or one large heart-shaped mold, also with holes, two-thirds full. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Pure'e raspberries and sugar in blender. Strain through fine sieve. Add cassis. Spoon over top of cheese mixture in ramekins. Serve immediately. CARROT BLINI (Makes 24 5-inch blini) 6 eggs 1/2 cup half-and-half 1 pound whole young tender carrots, grated 1 2/3 cups flour Butter to lightly coat pan For each blini: 1 teaspoon red salmon caviar 2 teaspoons sour cream Slices of fresh lime, for garnish Parsley sprigs, for garnish Beat eggs in a medium-size bowl. Add half-and-half and grated carrots. Work the flour into the carrot mixture. (If mixture sets for a long period of time, the carrots will seep, making the blini watery. Add a small amount of flour to bind the mixture.)
Heat a lightly buttered, heavy skillet (cast iron is preferred) until hot. Place one heaping tablespoon of blini mixture in center of pan, and spread with spoon. Cook until set. Turn over with a large spatula. Press lightly. When browned, turn blini again, this time pressing until the blini is thin. Turn again. Remove to heated serving plate. Top with one teaspoon red salmon caviar and a dollop of sour cream. Garnish with a thin slice of lime and sprig of parsley. BUTTERNUT SAUCE 4 to 8 tablespoons butter, depending on taste 1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped 12-ounce bag chocolate morsels
Melt butter, add nuts and quickly roast over low heat. Add the morsels and mix until melted. Remove from fire and spoon over hard ice cream. CRISP SHRIMP WITH FRUIT SAUCE (4 servings) 1 1/2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons paprika 1/2 teaspon baking powder 12 ounces beer 2 pounds large shrimp Oil for frying Fruit sauce: 1/4 cup horseradish 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger Juice of 1 lemon Juice of 1/2 orange 1 1/2 cups orange marmalade
Put flour, salt, paprika, baking powder and beer in a mixing bowl and mix at slow speed. Pour in beer. Mix until smooth and as thick as heavy cream--if too thick add more beer. Keep at room temperature. Fill saucepan with about 3 inches of frying oil. Heat to 350 degrees. While oil is heating dip shrimp into batter. Shake off excess. Dip into hot oil, holding the tail for a few seconds before dropping it--this prevents it from sinking too soon and sticking to bottom. Cook for 3 minutes, turning occasionally, or until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towel. Combine fruit sauce ingredients. Serve with shrimp.