The restaurant anthropologists could have a field day on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. They could aim their notebooks at the 10 little eateries and watch them grow and change with the times, for they are just at the beginning.
Only a few hundred people live year-round on the island, but in the summer the population swells to more than 3,000, estimate the locals. And there isn't much to do but sun and eat. In fact, until this decade there wasn't much of the latter, either. You could have "island seafood," which meant fried stuff. And that was about it.
Then eight years ago Debbie Wells came to Ocracoke from Atlanta -- just for the summer. She stayed on, however, and dreamed of opening a restaurant, having worked in kitchens in Atlanta for years and discovered a "big gap" in Ocracoke. Along the way she married John Wells, who had been a food service manager for Johns Hopkins University and chain restaurants, and together they undertook to manage a new restaurant -- The Pelican -- for four years until they were ready to start their own.
"The Pelican was totally new and totally different from anything the island had before," said Debbie Wells. It was the first restaurant in town to use tablecloths or to serve a fresh vegetable, she said. Up to that point the only soup to be found on the island was clam chowder, the only breads were hush puppies and white rolls.
Other restaurants changed after The Pelican opened. Captain Ben's turned down the lights and added tablecloths (blue) as well as a variety of soups, stuffed mushrooms and prime ribs to its already outstanding crab cakes and crab imperial. And the down-home island seafood restaurant, Pony Island, with its 20-gallon containers of Mel-Fry out back, will broil as well as fry your freshly caught seafood dinner. Nowadays Ocracoke has three sandwich shops, a pizza parlor and a Mexican restaurant. In the meantime, this dry island began to allow wine and beer to be served in restaurants; it still doesn't allow liquor by the drink.
In February 1984 the Wells opened their own restaurant, the Back Porch, which the locals now refer to as "the gourmet restaurant," the one that caters to "city tastes." It even has a vegetarian entree, which goes over well particularly with tourists, say the staff. This is clearly the prettiest restaurant in town, with flowers and cacti planted out front, and American Indian rugs and baskets on the soaring rustic wood walls of the screened porch, which seats 75. On each table are a little ceramic lamp and fresh flowers.
By day it is a bakery as well, with its own homemade bread and sticky buns. Its soups include the likes of potato-sausage, and its seafood platter consists of broiled fish with scallions, saute'ed shrimp with scallops and Debbie Wells' delicious crab invention, crab beignets. Available as appetizer as well, the beignets are the restaurant's best seller. "It just came from two or three different ideas," she explained the beignet's origin. "I had sort of come up with the filling and liked it, and then I saw a recipe for a cheese beignet and liked the idea of a deep-fried beignet, but not with cheese." So she wrapped her crab-cream cheese filling in a crepe, dipped it in a batter like an unsweet doughnut, and fried it into an instant hit.
Next month the restaurants of Ocracoke will close for the winter. Their staffs will take temporary jobs or go on unemployment. The Wells will spend a month thoroughly cleaning their restaurant, then work on the yard, do some equipment maintenance, and "tie up loose ends," said Debbie. Last year John went south to work on scallop boats and Debbie went north to study a month at Madeleine Kamman's cooking school in New Hampshire. She learned a lot of technique, she said, but the experience didn't change her menu. Her clientele, despite their clamoring for crab beignets and spinach-artichoke casseroles, aren't ready for such big changes.
So far. Tabletalk
Smith College could singlehandedly change the dining hall image next week when its new president is inaugurated with a weekend of meals planned by alumna Julia Child, to be served to the students as well as the guests. No mystery meat this weekend; rather, New England fish chowder, baked beans and apple-maple crepes flavored and named in honor of the college's new president, Mary Maples Dunn.
Restaurant critics can sharpen their pens again. The U.S. Court of Appeals has vindicated critics in the appeal of a case in which a New York District Court had awarded Mr. Chow's restaurant $20,000 compensatory damages from a restaurant reviewer. The appeals court ruled that statements of opinion are constitutionally protected; a restaurant is a "public figure"; and malice was not established in the case.
It is no surprise that nutrition is increasingly a factor in choosing menu items, as was found in a study of American diners by NPD Market Research Group. The fastest-growing menu items: decaffeinated coffee and fruit as a side dish. But lest we make too much of this health consciousness, the third- and fourth-fastest-growing items were breakfast sandwiches and diet colas. BACK PORCH CRAB BEIGNETS (Makes about 16 beignets)
FOR THE FILLING:
1 pound claw meat of blue crab, cooked and picked
1 pound cream cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
FOR THE CREPES:
1 cup flour
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
FOR THE BATTER:
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon soy oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup water
Lettuce for serving
Lemon wedges for serving
Dijon mustard for serving
Mix filling ingredients. Set aside. Mix crepe ingredients and let sit for 1 hour. Heat a small crepe pan until smoking. Brush lighly with oil. Make crepes by swirling 1 ounce of batter over the surface of a small (6-inch) crepe pan. Cook until crisp around the edges and turn once, cooking until done. Continue until all the batter is used.
When crepes are finished, place 2 ounces of filling in each crepe. Roll up crepe and tuck the ends under. (They may be refrigerated at this point for up to 12 hours.)
To make the batter, mix dry ingredients together. Mix wet ingredients together and then fold the 2 mixtures gently together.
Dip crepes in batter. Put oil in a pot until it reaches 2 to 3 inches. Fry crepes in oil until brown on both sides, turning once.
Serve immediately on lettuce with lemon wedges and mustard.