Fish Dishes of a Different Kind
New Orleans chefs are reaching new scales.
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
Great seafood has never been hard to find around here, but an argument could be made for a certain lack of inspiration in the way many places prepare it. However, a new wave of seafood establishments have come onto the scene offering a different take on what can be done with the daily catch. They approach the same ingredients with a fresh perspective – and the results are rewarding.
Pêche, the seafood-centric offering from the Link Restaurant Group, is one of the year’s more anticipated openings. In terms of design it shares more DNA with Cochon than Herbsaint, offering a dining room defined by floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed wooden beams, creating a feel that’s simultaneously contemporary and rustic. And like Cochon, the menu puts the focus on small plates, snacks and sides. But it’s the beast of a wood-burning grill, a custom-built iron and brick rig in the back that serves as the real engine of Pêche and is its most defining feature.
That grill encapsulates the concept of Pêche, which was born out of a pair of trips that partners Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt took to Uruguay and Spain. Impressed by the open-fire cooking techniques they encountered, the team set out to design a new kind of seafood restaurant. “We didn’t want to be a traditional old-line New Orleans seafood restaurant because there are plenty of those already,” says Prewitt, who heads up the kitchen as Pêche’s chef. “We wanted it to be a seafood restaurant heavily focused on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast that could take advantage of our grill and the techniques we’ve learned along the way. Our menu isn’t simple but also it isn’t over the top. It is fairly straightforward, friendly food with a new approach to local seafood.”
The whole roasted fish quickly emerged as a surprise signature dish. (“Donald, Stephen and I never expected to be selling this many whole fish,” Prewitt says). He sources them from an array of purveyors, and typically seeks fish from 2 to 3 pounds, though larger fish are often available and diners can call in advance if they’re looking for something specific for a more dramatic tableside presentation.
One recent visit served up a whole mangrove snapper that was scored before cooking to allow the meat to cook evenly and provide an entry point for the fork to rake the meat off the bones. The skin was crispy, the meat moist and a scattering of pickled onion and coarse salt atop it made it pop. Other popular dishes include the Royal Reds, a striking, intensely briny deep-water shrimp with a distinctively buttery texture.
Uptown on Magazine Street is Basin Seafood & Spirits, born of a partnership between local fishing guide Thomas Peters and chef Edgar Caro (also of Baru Bistro & Tapas) and Antonio Mata. A mutual friend happened to take Caro fishing with Peters, and Caro made an impression when he made a ceviche on the boat with a red snapper they had just caught. “It was one of the best things I’d ever put in my mouth,” Peters recalls.
“We generally have a lighter and simpler approach to seafood,” says Peters, who grew up fishing out of Venice, where his brother still runs a charter business. The menu makes an effort to get away from the ubiquitous fried platters offered around town. Like Pêche, Basin offers whole grilled fish (recently mangrove snapper as well) and that’s a recommended dish. “With the whole fish, you get all the tasty parts that you don’t get from the fillet,” Peters says. “Also, cooking it whole keeps everything intact. It traps all the good flavors inside the fish, where with a filet some of that escapes.”
Start with crawfish beignets, light and airy and served with a white rémoulade sauce. The charbroiled oysters are done in the style that Peters grew up with at his fishing camp – more poached them broiled so they maintain the essence of their natural oyster liquor.
The smoked snapper dip with grilled ciabatta makes for good sharing.
Going into late summer expect to see mahi mahi and cobia, along with Peters’ personal favorite, tripletail. Down the line he’s considering adding a brunch service with interesting takes on local dishes, including a snapper cheek Benedict.
Following the drama at his attempts to reopen Gabrielle Uptown, chef Greg Sonnier is now ensconced as executive chef at Kingfish in the French Quarter, which opened in April. “I liked what the owners (Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts) were looking to do – no white tablecloths and a casual feel but with food that comes up to the level of fine dining,” Sonnier says of his new digs.
Fans of Gabrielle will find a lot to like on the menu, which showcases a more eclectic side of Sonnier. “I wanted to take some dishes that I thought reflected New Orleans in some capacity, but then modernize them,” Sonnier says. While not predominately focused on seafood, Kingfish does feature it heavily. Its signature dish is “Every Man a Kingfish,” which showcases a fillet of pompano cooked atop of a block of Himalayan salt and served with lemons, roasted pecan butter and red onion marmalade. It makes for a striking presentation.
In August, look for Sonnier to back off a bit on the oysters and put forward some more unusual dishes for our area such as lobster Thermidor, made with small “chick” lobsters between 1 and 1.25 pounds. For lighter fare, Creole tomatoes look to be paired with Vidalia onions and broiled Gulf fish, making for a cooler summertime-type dish.
Sink or Swim
While Charlie’s Seafood in Harahan has closed, fans of Frank Brigtsen’s former casual seafood shack will be glad to hear he plans to run some of its old dishes at his flagship restaurant Brigtsen’s in the Riverbend neighborhood Uptown. So the Unfried Seafood Platter hasn’t gone away, it has just relocated. The excellent (and often overlooked by locals) GW Fins in the French Quarter is also offering a $35 three-course dinner through the end of August.
On the Hook
800 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays
Basin Seafood & Spirits
3222 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays
337 Chartres St.
Lunch daily, dinner Mondays through Saturdays