New Orleans — First you make a roux. That's been the first step in Creole cooking since antebellum days - that is, until lately. Perhaps it's a result of the lighter cuisine minceur, but today more restaurants here are using less of those heavy flour-and-fat rouxs. Also, some of the classic Louisiana dishes are being reworked and are appearing in creative new ways.
Many of the older restaurants favored by locals aren't limiting their menus to the traditional gumbos and jambalayas, either. Foreign and ethnic restaurants are cropping up as well, especially in suburban areas.
But is classic old New Orleans really being invaded by a nouvelle trend?
''Yes, but please don't call it nouvelle cuisine,'' says Cindy Brennan, one of the owners of Mr. B's on Royal Street. ''Sounds too French - like we're going to start painting with sauces to make pictures on the plate!'' She likes to call it ''contemporary Creole cuisine.''
But will it play in the French Quarter? Will the locals - many of whom have surrendered the area to tourists - buy it?
''They love it,'' Miss Brennan insists, ''and they can always get the heavier sauces and more traditional dishes at home. We like to play around with local foods, too. We like to experiment and run fun stuff, like alligator meatballs and redfish beignets.''
Miss Brennan is one of many restaurateurs interested in getting the locals back to the French Quarter. In fact, she wants the family-owned Mr. B's to be know as ''a New Orleans restaurant favored by locals.'' She ought to know what the local folks want; after all, the Brennan family is to New Orleans restaurants what the Burpees are to seeds.
Greater New Orleans is a city of some 1,400 restaurants, with a population of about half a million people. Restaurants here are unusually fine.
What makes them so good?
''If they're not, they simply fail,'' says Patricia Chandler, director of public relations at the elegant Royal Orleans Hotel. ''People in New Orleans complain; that's what keeps the quality of the restaurants high.''
Here at the Royal Orleans it's not just the dining rooms that have been done over. There has been extensive updating back in the kitchen as well, since the Dunfy chain has made this one of its ''classic hotels.''
Italian-born executive chef Andrea Apuzzo has been instrumental in broadening the cuisine into what he calls ''international'' fare without sacrificing the flavor that keeps local folks coming back. But again, the heavy rouxs are missing.
This trend is becoming somewhat typical in the French Quarter.
A little farther from the center of town are some outstanding ''foreign'' restaurants worth searching out. Here foreign- born chefs are having a holiday combining their ethnic flair with the superb and unusual produce available.
La Provence is one such place. Owner-chef Chris Keragorgiou is French-born of Greek parents. He runs a French restaurant well worth the 40-mile trek to the New Orleans suberb of Mandeville - even if you have to hitchhike.
And it is French - from the charming provincial costumes of the waitresses to the pots and pans. In fact, the whole kitchen was bought lock, stockpot, and barrel in France, crated up, and shipped here under Chef Keragorgiou's meticulous direction.
Even the larder is stuffed with those little imports that give the food a French flavor. Straw-thin green beans, mache, and tarragon are all flown in regularly from Paris.
Chef Keragorgiou zips around the kitchen like a laser beam, creating and serving a wonderful variety of interesting dishes. He still finds time to make his own pates, sausages, and salamis.
On the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, in Metairie, stands La Riviera. With its painted white brick and wrought iron, it couldn't look more out of place or more Italian.
Meeting the owner-chef poses a question. Can you take seriously a man who wears a Mickey Mouse watch?Yes, if it's Goffreda Fraccaro - but only when he's in the kitchen.
Part comedian, part singer, and full-time chef, Mr. Fraccaro is a walking three-ring circus. To say he loves his job is an understatement. Italian love songs waft from kitchen to dining room with aromas of the best foods Parma, Rome , and Genoa have to offer. You can sample virtually all the cuisines of Italy without getting up from your chair.
While chatting with Cindy Brennan at Mr. B's she suggested we nibble on Redfish Beignets. They were wonderful, a good example of using a local fish in an interesting new way. Redfish is not red snapper, and if it isn't available in your area you may use a firm white fish such as fillet of flounder. Redfish Beignets 1 pounds redfish fillets (fillet of flounder, cod, or other firm white fish will do) Louisiana Hot Sauce, to taste 3/4 cup flour 1/4 cup cornstarch 1/2 tablespoon paprika 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 tablespoon salt 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder Vegetable oil for deep frying
Beignet Sauce, recipe follows
Cut fish fillets in bite-size pieces and sprinkle liberally with hot sauce. Refrigerate for 1 hour or more.
Sift all dry ingredients together and dredge fish in mixture. Add enough oil to heavy pot for deep frying and heat to 350 degrees F.
Carefully drop in enough fish pieces to fry at one time. When fish pieces float, remove and drain on paper towels. Hold in warm oven until all are cooked. Beignet Sauce 1 cup mayonnaise 1/4 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste Chopped parsley for garnish, optional 6 to 8 lettuce leaves
Combine first 3 ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with parsley.
Serve sauce on lettuce leaf topped with with beignets.
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer.