In short order and without much thought, you can list two dozen restaurants in our area that are excellent or nearly so. It wasn’t always that easy.
When H. F., Doris, and I moved from Corinth to Jackson in 1949, good restaurants were scarcer than pig knuckles at Passover. Mind you, several were pleasantly non-poisonous, but only two qualified as places for that special night out. One was the Rotisserie, located on Pocahontas Road, then U.S. 49, at Five Points and Woodrow Wilson, just north of the Baptist Orphanage. The other was LeFleur’s, located at 119 South President Street, an address now occupied by Underground 119. This column concerns LeFleur’s; another will see to the Rotisserie.
Of the two restaurants, LeFleur’s was the more elegant. That’s a seasoned restaurant critic speaking; never mind that I was only eleven in 1949. I had experienced dining excellence. A year before, my parents and I had driven to Miami Beach. From our hotel, the Traymore on storied Collins Avenue, we drove one balmy evening to “Miami’s Oldest and Leading Seafood House.” This was Edith & Fritz, on the mainland.
Our hefty blonde waitress indicated an irresistible menu entry: “Shrimp or Lobster – All you can eat for $1.50!” I suspected that lobster took work, not that I’d ever had one, but I could recognize a bargain and I could peel shrimp. I ate so many boiled crustaceans that I was queasy in the presence of shrimp until the mid-1950s.
I have digressed, but there you have my credentials as a gourmand when I first visited LeFleur’s. On a spring evening, my folks and I left our temporary home at the Lakeland Apartments and drove downtown. We parked near the building called the Old Elks Club and climbed four steps at the structure’s right. Beside a single door, script letters set off by backlighting announced “LeFleur’s.”
We walked in and descended to a sunken dining room that as best I can recall seated about 60 diners. I remember it being quite dark, with soft light emanating from tall lamps along the walls. Spotless white cloth covered the tables and the top half of all the black waiters. A large Karl Wolfe mural dominated the north wall depicting the restaurant’s namesake. It’s fair to describe the ambiance as subdued festive overlaid with the clink of china and glassware.
The big LeFleur’s menu bore a sprinkling of French words that might as well have been Scrabble tiles, but with the help of a kind waiter and my parents I selected a signature LeFleur’s dish: Trout Amandine. It was transforming; I’d not had anything like it. No cook in our family was known to have sautéed delicate fish with almond flakes. Had the LeFleur’s trout been paired with a crackling Chablis, would rank as a life turning point. But, at 11, some things are unattainable.
Good as it was, the trout paled beside the evening’s headline attraction: Baked Alaska. I knew no more about Baked Alaska than I did about the club scene in Nome or Fairbanks, but it sounded good. The mysterious dessert arrived alone, my folks having chosen something less flashy. Its appearance stunned me. The outrageous concoction stood five inches above its plate, a mound of lightly browned meringue. I had encountered meringue on pies, but never topped with an eggshell of flaming brandy that put a warm glow on everyone’s face.
This was culinary drama, a golden moment of dining. Restraint disappeared along with my dinner dishes. Had Aphrodite flown in from Cyprus to feed me ambrosia—after first anointing my body with precious oils? H. F. interrupted my fantasies by saying, “Take a bite before it melts.”
I knew that my profusion of meringue was not about to melt, but I complied. My spoon went through the meringue like, well, a spoon through meringue. But it met with resistance, ultimately emerging with a thumb-size serving of vanilla ice cream.
Good God, I thought, this thing has ice cream in it! But it’s been in the oven! Indeed it had. A miracle! O wondrous epiphany! O apotheosis of delight! Through the fog of seventy-odd years, I thank the ghost of LeFleur’s.
In 1956, LeFleur’s moved to the I-55 Frontage Road just north of Northside Drive, where it remained a Jackson fine-dining fixture until progress erased it in 1985. I remain, however, as does Baked Alaska. The two of us get together when an opportunity presents itself, which is never often enough.
William Jeanes lives in Dinsmor.