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What's New Is Old 

THE RED MAPLE RESTAURANT may have gone through a revitalization both inside and outside the kitchen, but the West Bank restaurant's menu is quintessentially New Orleans.

Roughly 40 years ago, The Red Maple became the West Bank's first "multiplex" soon after Marvin Trauth commandeered his grandmother Emma Whiteside's living room to open a no-table-service restaurant. Before long he elevated his parents' neighboring shotgun residence and assembled a bona fide dining room beneath it. Further construction yielded two more dining rooms, a barroom, a courtyard, a lounge -- through how many parishes would the sprawling complex have wandered had the resolute tombs of Hook & Ladder Cemetery not halted the building spree?

The restaurant, primarily a steakhouse, stagnated throughout the 1990s; then last winter Trauth's son, Brent, and a partner launched an inside-out revitalization. Diners now step beneath a brick archway and over a footbridge, passing through a storybook garden patio with a bubbling goldfish pond and red maple saplings, en route to the main entrance. Likewise inside, the rambling spaces have been thoroughly cleaned and re-wired.

Not that any West Bank habitues could accuse the partners of going modern. Red Maple's proximity to City Hall and the Jefferson Parish courts advances its role as cafeteria, boardroom and rendezvous for Gretna's movers and shakers. Their business cards, including the smoke-yellowed ones pinned up forever ago, still wallpaper the barroom. Chef Randy Barlow, former owner of Kelsey's, may have spruced up the menu, but the signature bread pudding still tastes like cinnamon toast, its "rum sauce" melting like a pat of butter over the top.

Johnnies-come-lately are unlikely to notice the brightening at all; the entire place feels a bit subterranean. Few of the dining rooms' windows act as conduits for actual sunlight. German beer steins hang from low, wood-beamed ceilings in the elongated rooms, which along with copper antiques, gas fireplaces and dusty ornamental sherry bottles create the perpetually midnight feel of a German beer hall crossed with the coziness of an Alpine ski chalet.

The menu, however rejuvenated by Barlow, is all New Orleans. The near bitterness of the dark seafood gumbo is mellowed by lumps of sweet crabmeat and challenged by red pepper heat. In one appetizer special, what has become a classic local combination -- tart, fried green tomatoes and shrimp -- came gilded with a rich creamed spinach "Rockefeller" sauce.

There's a frying impresario here. Hush puppies are like perfect macaroons: dark and ruddy outside, Duncan Hines moist inside. No oil penetrates the crisp outer coating of a fried crabcake appetizer, which makes up for its meager crab content. Even some sauteed dishes are subject to expert frying, like the Sauteed Fresh Fish Fillet Franciscan (puppy drum), whose puffy fried batter matched the color of the pecans sprinkled on top. A superb meuniere sauce, thick like country gravy and sweet from onions, accompanied this fish; so, unfortunately, did lukewarm and limp roasted potatoes.

In the midst of the restaurant-wide overhaul, one often gets the impression that the chef is holding back. Tender beef brisket with horseradish sauce, a Red Maple institution, isn't bad. Still, with a tweak of seasoning here and better timing there, it could be so much better. Dinner salads are blah -- request a Caesar.

Other dishes are like the evening table service: well-meaning but wrong-headed. I had to request silverware with every course during the same meal in which grilled chicken breast tasted of gas-grill fumes and over-salted mashed potatoes were glutinous. The formless mud pie, made with chocolate pudding and cream, would be more appropriate served at a picnic, for free. During another meal, our server disappeared long enough for my tablemate to become thirsty, seek out a water pitcher, re-fill our glasses and return the pitcher without getting caught.

It is, however, possible to come away from Red Maple with an understanding for why generations of West Bankers have celebrated proms, engagements and anniversaries here -- why Brent Trauth's investments in the family multiplex matter. The model evening begins in the bar, watching -- as much as listening to -- warbler and pianist Jimmy Elledge, who entertains several seatings of devotees on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Elledge's sentimental rendition of Crystal Gayle's "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue" seeps into the dining rooms beyond, where the model evening continues with a bowl of magnificent turtle soup swept with citrus notes and accompanied by add-your-own green onion, crumbled egg and sherry.

The best main courses I tried at Red Maple fell under the category known in New Orleans-speak as "stuffed." In the Seafood Stuffed Eggplant, a pirogue-shaped segment of fried eggplant served as a platform for a fresh-tasting troupe of shrimp, oysters, salmon, crabmeat and tomato, all bound by a lightly garlicky lemon-butter sauce. A similar Stuffed Mirliton, twice offered as a special, was more delicious still, due to the mirliton's melon-like sweetness and the addition of andouille sausage.

Servers make leaving uncomfortable before an order of bread pudding, and rightly so. But the model evening isn't resolved until you've had a dessert cocktail in the smart lounge, which lies beyond the dining rooms, past the piano bar, in Emma Whiteside's former living room. It's kind of like sneaking into a second, or perhaps a third, movie at the Palace 16.

click to enlarge This old house: RED MAPLE RESTAURANT diners are - off to a great start when they step through a brick - archway as well as a storybook garden patio en - route to the main entrance. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • This old house: RED MAPLE RESTAURANT diners are off to a great start when they step through a brick archway as well as a storybook garden patio en route to the main entrance.
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