Fun Times With Fin Fish
When a fish isn't just a fish
photos by sara essex bradley
Three hands grabbed for the succulent hunk on the platter. The protein was red, richly marbled and powerfully beefy. “Like a rib-eye was in the 1970s before they started screwing things up.”
Each new course was a thrill.
Michael Nelson chuckled. The meat wasn’t animal protein, but rather the flesh from a massive blue fin tuna collar, a part of the creature from just behind the gills and under a fin that gets tossed out. Muscles attached to fins have a different texture and more robust flavor than cuts from more central parts of the fish harvested for traditional steaks and fillets.
Nelson started at GW Fins in 2005 as chef Tenney Flynn’s Sous Chef. Flynn recently tossed the reins to Nelson, promoting him to Executive Chef. Like Flynn, Nelson is a nose-to-tail guy who makes fishermen squirm. He rejects all but their finest, still-flapping specimens. With his prize secured, Nelson repairs to the kitchen to spend his days butchering down thousands of pounds of fish. Over a decade in, this sounds like a prison sentence for most of us, but this guy clearly loves his job. He stands tableside with Flynn, beaming, thrilled, psyched.
“I think we’re finally changing the way people think about fish,” Nelson said. “And it’s fun! I’m having fun.”
On a recent night he trimmed slight Gulf snapper collars into “wings.” I grasped a delicate plume of protruding fin as one might a chicken bone then bit through a crisp tempura crust flecked with black and white sesame seeds and a bright Korean chile glaze into succulent morsels of sweet meat suspended at the end of the plume. Divine.
Also on Nelson’s list of double-take dishes are his swordfish “ribs,” culled from the muscles and bones connected to the fish’s huge dorsal fin. Contemplate good barbecue and the junky cuts that benefit from long, slow cooking spells due to their abundance of connective tissues, sinew and collagen. Somehow, Nelson made the connection between this big, weird-looking mass of stuff under the swordfish’s dorsal fin and a hog’s ribs. When he butchered away all of the stuff he was left with what looks – and performs like – a rack of ribs, and he treats it the same way. He applies a dry rub and smokes it for a few hours over charcoal in a Big Green Egg. The result is a “rack” of bony swordfish that peels apart easily into “ribs” of rich smoky meat. He coats them with a glaze and served them with Southern sides like smothered greens, maques choux, cornbread and pickled vegetables. It is delicious and pure genius.
GW Finns best selling Scallibut is another of Nelson’s brilliant inventions. He tops a piece of delicate halibut with thin slices of sea scallop, which are then seared onto the fish then served with lobster risotto and pea shoot butter.
Nelson’s coconut sorbet is luxuriously creamy and robust and entirely vegan, but his Salt Malty Ice Cream Pie? I have no words.
“You won’t be able to stop eating this,” he said, plunking it down in front of us as we refused dessert. We were stuffed.
“No, no. You don’t get it. This is the perfect combination of salt, sugar and umami. It hits every note. You will not be able to stop.”
Three weary diners lifted their spoons into the plate. Just one bite. Just one more, again and again – until it was gone.
Kyly Larriviere recently opened La Rivière Confiserie, an exclusive purveyor of fine French candies and savories. A gorgeous jewel box of a shop, La Rivière offers products not found anywhere else nationwide, such as the masterful candies of Henri Le Roux. Look for chocolates, salt butter caramels, almond pralines, Calisson, pâté de fruit, bêtise and nougat, as well as jams, truffle, olive oils and biscuits.
GW Fins 808 Bienville St. 581-3467 GWFins.com
La Rivière Confiserie 3719 Magazine St. 809-1026 LaRiviereConfiserie.com