Mid-City, 4053 Tulane Avenue
Owners of restaurants come to the business from many kinds of past lives. I can think of only one whose immediately previous job was as first-chair violinist for a first-class symphony orchestra.
That man is Henry Lee, and that career shift wasn’t the only unusual part of his story as a restaurateur. He opened the first Korean restaurant New Orleans ever had. It was also the only one here for decades.
Recalling Genghis Khan creates a memory conflict between two equally distinctive and enjoyable aspects of the place. Which was better: the food or the music? Both were first-class.
I just flipped a coin and the cooking won. Korean food is obviously East Asian, but it’s just as clearly different from Chinese, Japanese or any other cuisine from that part of the world. It’s unusual in that it includes many spicy dishes, which are not often seen in countries as far north as Korea.
Genghis Khan cooked a wide range of Korean specialties. But its best-remembered dish was a whole fried drumfish, brought to the table with the head, tail, fins and everything else in place. That such a thing could become a house specialty in the 1970s–when diners were much more squeamish about trying something so primal–attests to the infectious enthusiasm of Henry Lee. How could you not go along with a tuxedo-clad, smiling guy who, between helping to deliver trays of food to tables, would pick up his violin and play a few classical pieces for you?
See, Henry Lee never gave up music. He continued with the symphony, and as of this writing (when he is in his seventies) he still performs around the country. He also leads a local Korean children’s chorus. Sometimes he even shows up in restaurants he likes and plays.
Back to the menu. You’d start with kimchee, the pickled, peppery, crunchy vegetable national dish of Korea. Genghis Khan made it with cabbage most of the time, but other crisp vegetables got in there too. The favorite hot starter was fried mandu–beef-and-stuff stuffed dumplings. Or kim, made by wrapping sheets of dried seaweed around a spoonful of fried rice. Or fried calamari or tempura shrimp.
By this time in the meal, another performer would sit down at the piano and serenade the dining room for awhile, with a few duets with Henry Lee sprinkled in for contrast. Ot it might be a guitarist or a flautist or some other deft local musician.
Then, if the whole fish wasn’t dominating the table, you’d have bulgoki, another Korean standard. Henry always talked about installing a charcoal grill in the restaurant, to properly char the marinated beef at the center of this dish. Fire codes made that dream impossible, but Henry never stopped talking about it.
Or your table might have made a meal out of the chongol hot pot. This was a nearly-clear broth (it resembled Vietnamese pho) riddled with seafood and vegetables, served in a special utensil that looked a little like a tube pan for cakes. A fire burned in the middle, keeping the soup surrounding it like a moat nearly boiling hot. You were invited to add some of the homemade pepper sauce, too, to heat it in the other sense.
And now you’d hear voices raised in song. Operatic tenors and sopranos and baritones and altos (but rarely basses, I always noticed) would perform a few recognizable pieces from the repertoire. A few diners with trained voices would sometimes join in. By that point, the marvelously urbane energy of the restaurant, usually full to capacity, reached a crescendo never seen in any other restaurant before or since. Even the winelovers were ecstatic; Henry Lee always maintained an extraordinarily well-stocked cellar.
All this magic was in mind-boggling contrast to the premises. The neighborhood of Tulane and Carrollton Avenues was very much on the way down in the Genghis Khan years. Maison Blanche closed its store across the street, and the once-classy Fountainebleau Hotel was turned into a storage facility. The restaurant’s own building never was much to look at inside or out.
In 2002, Henry Lee did something about that. A downtown hotel in the former Sears building on Baronne and Common was looking for an operator to take over its restaurant. It was a highly visible, large space. And it was only a block from the Orpheum Theater, the home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with which Henry Lee still played. It seemed like a natural. And for a while it was a grand stage for Henry Lee, his food, and his music.
But the hotel expected the new Genghis Khan to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. That was challenging when the hotel was full. But it was impossible to do without losing a lot of money when the place was empty. Henry Lee tried to renegotiate the deal with the hotel’s Chinese owners, but ended up in court and broke. He couldn’t go back to the old place, because he’d leased it to someone else. Katrina’s flood made that a finality. The glorious history of Genghis Khan ended after almost years.
Henry Lee moved to Houston after the storm, but he still comes to town. His musicians are scattered all over the place. Many of them wound up at Café Giovanni, where opera singers have always been part of the program. A couple of other Korean restaurants managed to open.
But there will never be another Genghis Khan.