Lakeview: 225 West Harrison Avenue
This restaurant proved that everything sounds more delicious in French. The restaurant’s name in English would be, “The Kitchen.” It’s like the difference between saucisson and hot dogs.
But La Cuisine had little Frenchness beyond having a Cajun in the kitchen and dining room. Lete Boulion–Mr. Lee to most of his customers–managed La Cuisine off and on for most of its history. Mr. Lee was the oldest of the old pros, already thirty-five years on the job when he opened La Cuisine. He was eighty-six when he retired in 1999, probably the oldest active restaurateur in New Orleans.
In the restaurant’s prime years, Joe Martin was also involved in La Cuisine. Like Mr. Lee, he managed a number of New Orleans restaurants over the years. The men were both in command of two bits of knowledge, neither of which is well enough known to restaurant people. They knew what people like, and what people are impressed by. And that’s what they gave their customers, always, without ever going beyond.
Most of the menu at La Cuisine was familiar Creole-French cooking. But Mr. Lee and Mr. Joe knew that people liked a little Italian food, too. So there was Italian food. They knew that any restaurant can serve steaks and brisket and red beans, but not many knew how to cook or serve fish beyond just frying it. So there was a lot of broiled, saucy, and stuffed seafood.
The seafood and Italian food and steaks and even the beans had a little bit more going on than average. That impressed people. Impressed them so much that by the 1970s, La Cuisine was a packed house with people waiting at the bar and even more standing in line outside, lunch and dinner, every day. All these people knew Mr. Lee and Mr. Joe, who would tell them what great big trout they saw in the kitchen tonight. And told them to tell the waiter that Mr. Lee said to put some crabmeat on top of that fish. That was kind of new in the 1970s. It impressed people.
What came out of all this after a few years was a cooking style I call Suburban Creole. It’s sufficiently reminiscent of the food at Antoine’s and Galatoire’s to seem special, but not as expensive, complicated, or fancy. And the potatoes and green beans and salad were free. People liked that. Suburban Creole was to spread to most of the upscale restaurants that opened in Metairie in the 1970s.
But it all started at La Cuisine. Business declined over the years, mainly as a result of the aging of their regular customers. The food remained good to the end, even as the ownership moved from father to daughter to husband. The latter took one look at the mess created by the ten feet of Katrina flood water and walked away. The building–owned by Tony Angello, whose restaurant a block away quickly reopened–was torn down. How do you say “empty lot” in French?