Korea is a place, the mention of which seldom ignites happy thoughts. When that country has been mentioned lately, a butterfly flitters from beyond an imaginary wall as a reminder of a certain Korean man who once lived in New Orleans. He played the violin. He also cooked his native cuisine.
His name was Henry Lee, and for many years he was the lead violinist for the symphony. He also had a hankering to operate a restaurant. At both he was a virtuoso.
Genghis Kahn, his restaurant, which opened in 1975, was located on Tulane Avenue on a blighted block just across the remains of the former Fontainebleau Hotel. The dining room was a refuge from the world out there, featuring a menu that authenticated Korean cooking. The national dish of Korea, kimchi, consisting of crunchy, peppery vegetables, including cabbage, was one of the appetizers. So, too, were the beef stuffed dumplings, fried calamari, and the kim made from wrapping fried rice with sheets of dried seaweed.
Among the entrees, the hot pot was a favorite, as diners would add sauces to a blend of broth, seafood and vegetables. Every stage has a star, and so, too, do menus. To me, center stage belonged to the fried, whole drumfish, and by whole, it meant with the head and tail still on when served. This was a crunchy dish, in which the meat just exploded with flavor, leaving behind a fish skeleton with a scattering of fried skin for nibbling.
Had the experience stopped there, the evening at Genghis Kahn would have already been fulfilling, plus there was usually someone playing something soothing on the piano, but then Henry Lee reached for his violin. Always dressed in a tuxedo, he looked imposing as his strings began to sing through the classics. Next came a pause. The singers among the wait staff, who only moments earlier had been toting away fish bones, gathered at various spots in the dining room. Suddenly to the haunting sounds of “The Phantom of the Opera” the restaurant became the world’s largest live stereo system. The men sang the Phantom parts and the women performed as Christine. Both groups joined in the chorus:
And in this labyrinth
Where night is blind
The Phantom of the Opera is here
Inside your mind
A well-fed crowd hooted for what was a spectacular moment.
But that was not the highlight – at least not to me.
That came a little later in the evening, when Lee reached for his violin again. This time it was just him. His bow crossed a string creating a sound like a train whistle. Then the tempo kicked up with a rolling sound, as though a train was leaving the station. Magically, Lee was playing his violin like a country fiddle. With each line the pace increased enriched by additional whistle sounds.
Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track….
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back
What a moment: This first chair symphony violinist, a man schooled in the classics, was playing a bluegrass masterpiece known for its torrid pace – flawlessly. If there was a Ph.D. exam for the violin, this was it.
In 2002, Lee moved his restaurant to a downtown location, the former Sears building that had been converted into a hotel. He was away from the troubled old neighborhood, plus the new location was near the Orpheum Theater, where the symphony played. At first the move was successful, yet the experience was as though there was a phantom hiding in the rafters. There were several legal entanglements between him and the hotel. He lost money. In 2004 he was forced to close.
After Katrina, Lee moved to Houston, but frequently returned here to visit.
If music and food at their best could assure world peace, Henry Lee should have been at the summit.