If you took a map and charted a railway line from New York to New Orleans via Durham, N.C., the path would resemble a crescent moon.
Such a railway existed once, and the Crescent Limited Railway Line served glorious food of the South and New Orleans.
Today that spirit is captured at the Crescent Cafe, specializing in what its chefs call "Delta cuisine."
A recent menu featured such dishes as spring greens and black-eyed pea soup, crab cakes with Cajun remoulade, grilled chicken breast with peanut sauce and coconut mango chutney, and grilled Lone Star rib eye with pepper salsa.
The cafe, which opened last fall, is in downtown Durham -- nestled among several vacant storefronts. Transformed from an old department store, the cafe serves as a glimmer of the city's pleasant past, and a sign of hope for the future.
"Durham was once a beautiful and powerful city," says Walter Royal, executive chef and partner at the Crescent Cafe. Now people are pumping money into Durham to bring it back, he says during a lunchtime interview.
Mr. Royal introduces Don Wexell, chef and co-partner with "an impeccable talent with spices," says Mr. Royal. Over goblets of spring water they talk about community, clientele, the cafe and Southern cuisine.
Standing in their chef whites at 6 feet 2 inches and 6 feet 4 inches, respectively, chefs Royal and Wexell command the cafe with give-and-go teamwork. "We work very well together. We complement each other," says Mr. Royal. If Mr. Royal is the culinary designer, Mr. Wexell is the elaborator and executor.
"Eight out of 10 times, Don is the research man. . . . He takes things that step further," says Mr. Royal.
Adds Mr. Wexell: "I pick up and do."
Both men cite long histories of working with food. "I think I was born cooking," Mr. Royal says with a laugh. "It's been a part of me forever." He grew up in Montgomery, Ala., attended Nathalie Dupree's Cooking School in Atlanta and worked at several restaurants before opening the Crescent Cafe with four other people.
Mr. Wexell is a transplant from upstate New York and learned to cook as a latchkey child: "I was a better cook at 12 than my mother when she was 30," he says.
In Mr. Royal's eyes, a good Southern dish is one that is "perfectly balanced. It's like a fine-tuned Jaguar."
C7 Here's an entree that exemplifies their philosophy:
Pan-seared gulf tuna
This is a lighter approach to Cajun-style "blackening," says Don Wexell, the Crescent Cafe chef who concocted these recipes.
6 tuna steaks ( 3/4 to 1 inch thick, about 6 1/2 ounces apiece; look for shiny-red flesh)
olive oil (enough to coat frying pan generously)
2 teaspoons crushed hot red pepper flakes
20 whole black peppercorns
20 whole white peppercorns
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Grind spices using a spice mill or coffee grinder (mortar and pestle or even mincing with a chef's knife can also work). Generously coat pan (preferably cast-iron) with olive oil. Heat olive oil on high until it starts to burn. Smoke will start to rise; oil will be extremely hot.
Rub tuna with spice mix. Carefully place in pan and sear for 1 1/2 minutes (2 minutes, if steak is 1 inch thick). Turn over and sear for another 1 1/2 minutes. This will cook the tuna to a medium rare. Cook longer if desired. (Tuna medium rare is moist and juicy; longer cooking time results in drier tuna.)
Serve immediately on a bed of mustard grits (recipe below) on warm plates. Garnish with fresh chives and diced tomato.
Instant grits (to make 2 cups cooked)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tablespoons Creole mustard (substitute any other whole-seed
salt, pepper and Tabasco to taste
Prepare grits according to package directions. Add Parmesan cheese, mustard, salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Stir well. Serve immediately. If grits are a little stiff, add hot water to loosen.