IF you took a map and charted a railway line from New York to New Orleans via Durham, N.C., the path would resemble a crescent moon. Such a railway existed once, and the Crescent Limited Railway Line served glorious food of the South and New Orleans.
Today that spirit is captured at the Crescent Caf'e, specializing in what its chefs call ``Delta cuisine.''
A recent menu featured such dishes as: Spring Greens and Blackeyed Pea Soup; Crabcakes with Cajun Remoulade; Grilled Chicken Breast with Peanut Sauce and Coconut Mango Chutney, and Grilled Lone Star Ribeye with Pepper Salsa.
The caf'e, which opened in October to runaway acclaim, is here in Durham, one of the stops along the old Crescent Line. More significant, it's in downtown Durham - nestled among several vacant storefronts. Transformed from an old department store, the caf'e serves as a glimmer of the city's pleasant past, and a sign of hope for the future.
``Durham was once a beautiful and powerful city,'' says Walter Royal, executive chef and partner at the Crescent Caf'e. Now people are pumping money into Durham to bring it back, he says during a lunchtime interview.
Chef Royal introduces Don Wexell, chef and co-partner with ``an impeccable talent with spices,'' says Mr. Royal. Over goblets of spring water they talk about community, clientele, the caf'e, and Southern cuisine.
Chefs' role as educators
Community support for the Crescent has been strong from Day One, says Royal. Mr. Wexell cites the area's high concentration of PhDs (Duke University is nearby) and a growing arts community, as well as the wealth of good produce available here.
Part of the caf'e's responsibility, say the chefs, is to satisfy people's culinary curiosity. ``We are obligated to the community to educate,'' Royal says. People want to taste the Eggplant Bayou Teche and try it on their own. Adds Wexell: ``You're not only getting a meal - you're getting something you can cook at home.''
A taller task is disabusing some customers of their preconceptions about Southern cuisine, says Royal - that it's greasy and heavy. ``Most people think of Southern cuisine as inland - barbecue, fried chicken, pork chops. They never think of the coast and seafood - oysters and clams - as being Southern ... as they should.
``From the coast, we can get anything. From Norfolk [Va.] to New Orleans, we have more coast than California,'' Royal says. ``Savannah [Ga.] has one of the nicest seafood festivals in this country!''
Likewise, when people hear ``Creole, Cajun, they automatically think `hot' - Tabasco.'' People may also have had an ill-prepared meal at some bait and tackle shop on the Bayou, Royal jokes.
The Crescent is out to correct those misperceptions. (Though ``we still eat a lot of pork barbecue!'' says Wexell with a smirk.)
Standing in their chef whites at 6 ft., 2 in. and 6 ft., 4 in., respectively, Chefs Royal and Wexell command the caf'e with give-and-go teamwork. ```We work very well together. We complement each other,'' says Royal. If Royal is the culinary designer, Wexell is the elaborator and executor. ``Eight out of 10 times, Don is the research man.... He takes things that step further,'' says Royal. Adds Wexell: ``I pick up and do.''
An example of their collaboration is the ribeye steak, one of Royal's favorites. After Royal designed the procedure for cooking the steak, Wexell came up with a chili sauce. ``It has evolved from local tomatoes, Georgia Vidalia onions, and dried peppers from Sante Fe,'' Wexell explains.
Both men cite long histories of working with food. ``I think I was born cooking,'' Royal says with a laugh. ``It's been a part of me forever.'' He grew up in Montgomery, Ala., attended Nathalie Dupree's Cooking School in Atlanta, and worked at several restaurants before opening the Crescent Caf'e with four other people.
`Seize the moment'
Wexell is a transplant from upstate New York and learned to cook as a latch-key child: ``I was a better cook at 12 than my mother when she was 30,'' he says. He waxes romantic about the South being an epicure's fantasy. New Orleans is his favorite place to visit and ``play,'' he says. Santa Fe takes a close second.
The chefs discuss feelings of energy, control, creativity, and enjoyment associated with cooking. There's a sense of ``seize the moment,'' Royal says.
Next stop, Atlanta?
Royal laughs as if to say ``first things first.'' With the caf'e in its infancy, ``you have to nurture it, encourage it, watch it grow,'' he says. Plans are in the works for expansion, including another kitchen and 25 more seats.
The caf'e's interior is a mix of Southern charm and New York chic, again symbolic of the railway's journey. Large white columns and plants suggest plantations and front porches, while the black tables and chairs, strings of tiny white lights, and gallery photographs whisper urban trendiness. The top of a low bureau in the back is casually lined with Southern cookbooks by Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme, John Egerton, and others.
Could the Crescent survive in New York? ``Easily,'' Royal states. ``But could I survive in New York?'' he says with a smile. ``I'm a Southern boy at heart.''
In Royal's eyes, a good Southern dish is one that is ``perfectly balanced. It's like a fine-tuned Jaguar.''
To demonstrate, Royal, Wexell, and Crescent staff set out a scrumptious meal for two:
For starters, mini-biscuits and little corn muffins. (My dinner guest decides the corn muffins are the best he has ever tasted.) For an appetizer, fried okra. ``Fried okra is the epitome of the South. You can't come to the South and not have fried okra,'' says Royal.
Next, Pan-seared Yellow-fin Tuna on a bed of Mustard Grits, deliciously but delicately spiced with garlic, chives, and thyme. [See recipe at left.]
Wexell is ``so strong in balancing out spices,'' says Royal. ``With him, it's a God-given talent.'' Wexell also insists on line-caught tuna. My guest devours Spring Lamb with Split Pea and Goat Cheese Salad.
For dessert: tall and remarkably fluffy bread pudding, Lemon Poppyseed Pound Cake with homemade vanilla ice cream and strawerry sauce, and Georgia Peanut Butter Ice Cream (also homemade) with fudge sauce.
We have a saying down here, Royal says, seeing that his guests are not just a little full:
``Put me on the porch with my feet up!''