NEW ORLEANS -- Here on Lake Pontchartrain, diners never know quite what to expect when they settle into a table at Wolfe's of New Orleans Restaurant and inquire about the gumbo of the day.
''Gumbo is something interesting for cooks," says chef and owner Thomas Wolfe. ''It pushes them to be creative."
Wolfe grew up on the lakefront and has proved that you can go home again. He has fond memories of crabbing and fishing and helping his mother and grandmother prepare big meals of roasted pig, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and crab-stuffed patty shells. Recalling these ''cookfests," he says making gumbo is ''in the genes."
Wolfe gained a license to improvise by virtue of his grounding in Creole cuisine -- a blend of French technique, African tradition, and Spanish spices with such Gulf Coast staples as oysters, crawfish, rice, shrimp, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes. ''I follow my creativity a little more," he says, when making gumbo, the Gulf Coast stew traditionally thickened with a roux and either okra or filé (ground sassafras leaves).
That might translate to the classic seafood gumbo that Wolfe often serves on Fridays, or perhaps an oyster gumbo. He also likes to combine chicken with andouille sausage, smoked duck with wild mushrooms, or venison with corn.
Sometimes Wolfe will whip up a vegetarian gumbo with mustard and collard greens and lots of parsley. Or he might base his gumbo on alligator meat. ''I know the flavor of alligator and how to adjust the seasonings to make it enjoyable," he says.
Wolfe ran a catering business and perfected his trade in some of the city's leading kitchens, cooking at Mr. B's Bistro (of the ubiquitous Brennan family of restaurateurs) and working his way up to sous-chef at Emeril's. He opened Wolfe's in May 2000 in a former ''double-shotgun" cottage, so named because of the straight passage from the front to back door. In the land of casual fish shacks, Wolfe's is a quietly elegant, white-linens dining room with pale walls and vintage photos.
''This used to be a thriving area for fine dining until 15 or 16 years ago," he says, noting there are still ''lots of places where you can come in your shorts and eat fried food. I wanted to breathe a little life back into the lakefront." Even in a restaurant-rich city like New Orleans, gourmands often make the 10-minute drive from downtown.
After the gumbo, diners might move on to the restaurant's signature salad: Creole boiled Gulf shrimp (''spicy, but not too spicy," Wolfe says) served with celery root slaw, baby lettuces, chopped hard-boiled eggs, diced tomatoes, and fried sweet corn. It's accompanied by a classic remoulade of mayonnaise, mustard, chopped pickles, and fresh herbs. The nutty, sweet fried corn mellows out the remoulade and adds crunch.
''I'd be shot," Wolfe says with a laugh, if he removed some of his signature dishes from the menu. Chief among them is a slow-roasted duck that is first cured in salt, cracked pepper, cayenne, sugar, tarragon, and juniper berries, then marinated in Steen's Cane Syrup, an old-fashioned southern Louisiana product made by cooking down sugarcane juice in open evaporators. It takes four days to produce this succulent, almost candied duck, which Wolfe serves with a lobe of seared foie gras and a mash of duck cracklings and sweet potatoes -- all sauced with a blueberry and duck reduction.
Anyone who still has room for dessert might select an almond tuile crunch Napoleon or an almond praline cheesecake. But the best choice (and sentimental favorite) is Ellie's white chocolate butter bars, served with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and raspberry coulis. The rich dessert is based on a recipe that Wolfe's mother got from his grandmother. ''I tweaked it a little," he says. ''My mother used cake mix. I changed it to scratch baking and added a little white chocolate." Placing the family recipe on the menu is ''a tribute to my mother and her patience with me being in the kitchen with her," Wolfe says.
Moreover, the loyal son insists, ''hers are better."
Wolfe's of New Orleans, 7224 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans. 504-284-6004. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch, Tuesday-Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch. Entrées $19-$25. Patricia Harris is coauthor of ''The Meaning of Food," companion volume to the PBS series.