We are a perverse bunch, we diners. We want atmosphere, but not too much and not too little of it. We don't want to be crowded, but we feel uncomfortable in an empty dining room. We want convenience, then reject it if it is too available.
So it went in New Orleans a couple weeks ago. K-Paul's had lines down the block and is closed on weekends. No locals I knew would patronize the place anymore; it is too much bother. But there was Chez Helene, one of the nation's great soul food restaurants, which had recently opened a branch in the French Quarter. It serves the kind of food that drives tastebuds crazy with desire, at prices half K-Paul's. But this new branch is in a hotel dining room that is innocuous (as opposed to the lived-in, as they call it, look of the old Chez Helene). It was nearly empty every time I looked in.
Finally, having feasted my way through New Orleans from the French Quarter to the Garden District, so sated I thought I might prefer never to eat again, I stopped in Chez Helene just for a taste.
The taste turned into a meal and the meal into a question: Why was Chez Helene not packing them in and causing lines to form down the block? Here was a file' gumbo sizzling in its intensity, chock full of picnic ham, locally made smoked sausage and chaurice, hard crabs and shrimp. Here were red beans so creamy and smoky with ham you wouldn't trade them for a bowl of truffles. And the corn muffins should be officially recognized by the National Bureau of Standards as the ideal; they are crisp-edged and light, and taste definitely of corn. The lemonade is not only homemade, it is refilled free. And the coffee is in the proud New Orleans tradition.
We never got to the stuffed peppers I knew from the old days ("not that rice and tomato sauce thing you see all around the country," explains chef Alton Harrell); or the platters of stewed chicken with baked macaroni, string beans, stuffing, beet salad and apple pie that is the Sunday $9 special and amounts to a five-course meal; or the fried chicken, true Southern fried chicken, marinated for a day in its seasonings and dipped in a light batter of flour, eggs and canned milk, then fried in peanut oil that is strained every day and changed a couple times a week.
We asked friends about the new Chez Helene in the de la Poste Hotel, and they hadn't been there. Then we told friends about it and they were put off by the coffee-shop look and the empty tables, so they ate elsewhere.
Now certainly I'm overstating the case, because Austin Leslie -- Helene's nephew, who runs the original restaurant on Robertson Street outside the Quarter -- says the new branch sells about 50 whole chickens a day and about 300 corn muffins. The Monday night after my visit it was packed, he said. Alton Harrell -- Leslie's nephew, who runs the new place -- says the restaurant is doing fine, draws "more business people in coats and ties" and plenty of tourists. Both agree that the two restaurants are pretty much the same except some of the prices are a couple dollars higher in the Quarter. At both places the recipes are old family ones, handed down from Aunt Helene -- now 74, retired from the business for the last 12 years -- and Uncle Sidney, Aunt Glenna, Aunt Thelma and so on.
Leslie grew up in the restaurant, and Harrell was more or less born into it. At 12, he was peeling shrimp and cleaning the dining room at Chez Helene, then he left to go to college in Illinois and worked in restaurants there and along the coast of Northern California.
"He has the taste," said his uncle, explaining why these totally separate restaurants can serve nearly identical food. "Oh, I felt so good Monday," said Leslie. He took the chef of the Ponchartrain Hotel to eat at Harrell's restaurant and "he couldn't believe it wasn't me doing it," said Leslie.
Harrell has added a few new dishes -- blackened redfish, which has begun to sweep New Orleans as it has swept the rest of the country -- and homemade French vanilla ice cream. He is serving mirlitons, elsewhere called chayotes, and okra.
What is different about Harrell's cooking is that he is aware of its theoretical underpinnings. The secret of his corn muffins? You have to be careful not to mix the batter too much or you will "work the gluten." Did his Aunt Helene know about gluten? "Oh, no," laughed Harrell. "They cooked by instinct."
He has gotten interested in the science of cooking; he keeps up with the literature. The older generation of cooks talk of getting "a nice chicken"; Harrell adds that it should have a "high meat-to-bone ratio." He talks of the oil breaking down and producing toxins if it is not replaced frequently. As for pepper, he uses three kinds because they "stimulate different parts of the palate. Black is on the tip of the tongue, white is a little further back, and cayenne is kind of like an afterthought, almost in the throat." But modern theory and atmosphere basically don't matter. This is an eater's town. Says Leslie, "In New Orleans if the food's on target," everything else is secondary.
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1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) margarine
6 medium bell peppers, halved lengthwise, plus 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 sprigs parsley, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 small loaf stale french bread
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon thymeBread crumbs and melted margarine for topping Melt margarine in a large frying pan and saute' the chopped pepper, celery, parsley and onion until they begin to turn beige. Add beef and shrimp. Continue to simmer until meat is cooked through.
In the meantime, make the dressing: The bread must be stale and hard; if it is too fresh, put it in the oven until it is hard. Crumble the bread with a mallet or with your hands. Spread in a baking pan and wet with just enough water to moisten thoroughly without turning it soggy.
Beat 3 eggs into the bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in minced garlic, bay leaf and thyme. Add meat and shrimp mixture; adjust seasonings if necessary.
Bake in a well-preheated 350-degree oven for an hour, stirring and turning the mixture with a spatula after a half hour. Remove from oven and cool; refrigerate if necessary.
Stuff the peppers with the cooled meat-shrimp mixture. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and drizzle with melted margarine. In a pan large enough to hold the peppers in one layer, add water just to cover the bottom. Arrange the peppers in the pan and broil until top is browned and stuffing is heated through or bake in 350-degree oven for about 10 to 15 minutes or until heated through.