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Making the most of their locations, restaurants along the Gulf Coast offer the very freshest fish they can and spice it up with elaborate preparations or just a simple slice of lemon.
To paraphrase the scriptures, everything has a season. So it’s no secret that fish, like all good things that come from the earth, are best served fresh and that the optimum time to enjoy these riches is during their peak seasons. Although the Gulf provides an abundance of seafood, the selection customers crave is not always available.
Sure, a variety of seafood is served year-round, but when certain favored, tasty sea treats are available, Gulf Coast restaurateurs are especially swamped with guests’ requests as waves of diners arrive nightly to partake of their favorite catch of the day.
But it’s not just the Gulf Coast’s seafood restaurants that follow the sun, the moon, the tides and the seasons to choose the very freshest, top-of-the-season offerings. There’s plenty of good seafood to be had at other excellent establishments where fantastic fin fare are savored by fish-loving foodies.
We went exploring along the Gulf Coast and selected some splendid seafood restaurants to feature, along with a couple of surprise entries such as a French restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., and an Italian restaurant in Orange Beach, Ala.
First off, we visit New Orleans, where extraordinary chefs produce culinary magic nightly. One such chef is Tenney Flynn, the executive chef and co-owner of aptly named seafood palace GW Fins.
GW Fins is located in the city’s historic French Quarter, and chef Flynn and his Fins cohort and business partner, Gary Wollerman, have captured the attention of critics, locals and visitors alike with their excellent efforts to showcase the best, most creative seafood preparations, not just from Gulf Coast waters but also globally.
To accompany this profusion of fresh seafood, Wollerman’s carefully chosen wine list, which has earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for a number of years, offers more than 100 labels with 70 available by the glass.
Flynn, who grew up cooking in his father’s restaurant in Stone Mountain, Ga., went on to graduate from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
After stints with Atlanta’s Buckhead Life Restaurant Group cooking at Pano’s & Paul’s and Atlanta Fishmarket and serving as executive chef at Chops, he joined Ruth’s Chris Steak House as director of culinary operations, and it was there that he met Wollerman.
At Fins, Flynn’s guiding philosophy in preparing seafood is that if it has a wonderful flavor, “the cooking techniques should enhance these flavors rather than overwhelm them.”
Flynn sources his fish from dozens of specialized suppliers, from the Gulf Coast to faraway places. “My suppliers know the quality and freshness that we demand,” he says. Because the menu is printed daily, he can make frequent changes to feature prime fish finds from purveyors.
“I buy whole fish so I can judge the quality better,” he adds. “I’ll pick up a fish, look at it, smell it, feel the texture, check out the gills. We buy 100 pounds each of grouper and snapper every two days, so some days, I may have to reject 30 pounds or so.”
In his commitment to high quality and freshness, Flynn teamed with Randall Refrigeration to develop a state-of-the-art cutting table with refrigerated drawers. “I have a walk-in cooler I keep at 32 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says, “because temperature integrity is the most important thing with a fish. They can start to degrade very fast.” The cutting table’s refrigerated surface helps tremendously, he says: “Anything to keep it colder until it hits the grill.”
Flynn loves working with seasonal local favorites such as red snapper, drum, black and snowy grouper, trout, cobia (lemon fish) and tripletail.
Of course, he flies in scallops and salmon from the east and west coasts, but then there may be John Dory from New Zealand on the menu, Dover sole from Holland, Bronzini from Greece, monkfish from New Bedford on the New England coast, Alaskan halibut, sea bass from Chile and so on.
“However,” he says, “if you add up all the fin fish from both the east and west coasts, you still won’t equal the number of fish available in Gulf Coast waters.”
Of all the myriad fish in his repertoire, there are those that always garner a “wow” from both him and his customers when they’re first spied on the menu.
For Flynn, it’s pompano, which he likes to prepare wood-grilled with fresh Louisiana crawfish spoon bread, Smithfield ham, green beans and roasted corn butter.
Another favorite is local flounder crusted with Parmesan cheese and served with wood-grilled asparagus, browned butter, fried capers, chanterelle mushrooms and jumbo lump crab. “When a cold front blows through, we know we’re going to get flounder,” he says.
Another top-notch fish that draws “oohs” and “ahhs” is tuna. “Louisiana is the No. 2 tuna producer behind Hawaii,” he says. Flynn prepares a yellowfin tuna cut into three perfect cylinders and wrapped in nori, cooked rare and served with sticky rice, Asian veggies, sweet soy butter and pea shoots.
“This is such a popular dish; we sold 28 in one night recently,” he says. When available, he also serves bluefin tuna, usually wood-grilled with creamed leeks, portobello mushrooms and veal jus.
Another Gulf fish that’s high on diners’ lists is red snapper, which he often prepares sautéed with four bite-size Peking duck dumplings, each with a cracklin inside, garnished with a variety of fresh mushrooms and abalone in a light mushroom broth.
At Fins, diners can always expect surprises and delights in every dish.
Baton Rouge, La.
In Baton Rouge, just 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, chef Michael Jetty of Maison Lacour is stirring things up with a classic dish, pompano en papillote, where flounder can be substituted for pompano, depending on seasonal freshness.
Originally developed at the celebrated Antoine’s in New Orleans – the oldest continuously operated family-owned restaurant in America – the dish was created by the son of the founder. When the famed director Cecil B. DeMille had the dish at Antoine’s, he reportedly said, “Many a chef has created a dish, but only God could have created that fish.”
In a more recent time frame – the restaurant has been in business 24 years – Maison Lacour has a family history, as well. Jetty graduated from Louisiana State University in accounting, owned a small Baton Rouge restaurant for a time and then decided he really wanted to become a chef. He thought about the places where he’d taken dates to impress them and decided Maison Lacour was where he wanted to do an apprenticeship and really get serious about cooking.
Maison Lacour was owned by a French family, the Gréauds, and Jetty applied to become an apprentice with its Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Jacqueline Gréaud.
‘She taught me everything I know, but not everything she knows,” he says. “She taught me European training and discipline.”
Jacqueline and her husband, John, also had a lovely daughter, Eva, whom Jetty began seeing. The young couple eventually married and continued the family tradition of fine French cuisine at Maison Lacour after Eva’s parents retired.
Jetty describes his culinary fare as simple, straightforward French food that allows the ingredients to shine on their own. His pompano – or flounder – en papillote is one of those dishes. The fish fillet is laid on a velouté sauce made from seafood stock, white wine, shrimp and crab on a piece of parchment, which is folded over and sealed before baking in a hot oven.
Jetty, who believes strongly in supporting local purveyors to source seafood, says the primary reason he uses flounder more often than pompano is that flounder is generally available all year-round.
He also orders fresh seasonal Gulf shrimp for the shrimp ravioli with white wine cream sauce and Louisiana blue crab for such dishes as artichoke heart stuffed with jumbo lump crab with Hollandaise sauce.
The Soupe Jacqueline, an homage to his mentor and mother-in-law, is a velouté of brie, cream and asparagus with lump crab and fresh asparagus tips added just before serving. Many other dishes also feature shrimp and crab, which are plentiful most of the year.
When the supply is good, Jetty features fresh mahi-mahi from the Gulf, grilled and served with a ginger-wasabi butter sauce. Other fresh, seasonal Gulf fish one might see on Maison Lacour’s menu are cobia, snapper, grouper and redfish – but only when they’re running good, Jetty notes.
Maison Lacour offers some fabulous wines for pairing with seafood, especially a Château de Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley and a Louis Latour Pouilly Fuissé.
Orange Beach, Ala.
Over in Orange Beach, executive chef and General Manager Brody Olive is cooking up a passel of fresh fish at Villaggio Grille, a Mediterranean-Italian restaurant with a 6.5-ton wood-burning oven as the centerpiece in the eatery’s open kitchen.
Before he got “back to the beach,” Olive, a nine-year veteran at Birmingham seafood restaurant Ocean, may have been working inland, but it didn’t stop him from flying in the freshest top-quality fish he could lay his hands on. “We had an airport nearby, so that made it very convenient,” he says.
Now, he has suppliers who provide him with fresh seasonal offerings practically from his backyard. Fresh Gulf grouper is a mainstay, as are roast whole pompano and flounder, he says.
“We clean and stuff the cavities with fennel, citrus, salt and pepper, a little garlic powder and oregano and drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on both sides,” Olive says.
Then he slides the fish onto a heated pan and sears one side. “The other side gets bubbly and crisp,” he says. “After about 10 to 15 minutes at 600 to 650 degrees Fahrenheit, we serve the fish with the roasted-skin side up.”
The kitchen uses a variety of different woods in the large oven, which impart various flavors, he says.
Summer is a great time for pompano, Olive says: “We can see them closer and closer to the beach when it starts to warm up. You can just wade out there and catch them in the morning and late afternoon depending on the tides.” But, he cautions, fishermen need to get out there before the high tide.
“Pound for pound, I think it’s the best fish in the water,” he says. “The first thing I did when I got here was learn how to catch pompano. When I do have time off, I like to spend it catching dinner for the house.”
Olive credits his relationships with key suppliers – some of whom he’s worked with for 10 years – for the prime seafood he’s able to offer patrons at Villaggio. “They know our specs,” he says. “If I ask for triggerfish, they know what to send me. If a fish is over a certain weight, it can take on a different texture or denseness and can be more difficult to work with.”
For example, Olive likes 1.5- to 2-pound pompano, 3- to 4-pound flounder and 10- to 20-pound grouper. Like flounder and pompano, grouper is a local fish but can also be sourced from the South Pacific and Mexico.
Several of Olive’s regular seafood dishes are a brown-butter grouper with shrimp ravioli; wood-grilled ahi tuna with caramelized onions; pan-seared flounder with a Parmesan polenta cake and tomato beurre blanc; and a niçoise salad with wood-fired ahi tuna, green beans, boiled potatoes, capers and tomatoes.
Olive also flies in specialties such as Prince Edward Island mussels, Nova Scotia salmon, Alaskan halibut, loup de mer from the Mediterranean and wild striped bass and scallops from the East Coast.
“Customers love the flounder fillet atop tomato risotto, but if there’s one thing they go totally wild for, it’s crabmeat,” Olive says. “They like crabmeat on any fish.”
And for wine pairings, the extensive list notes more than 100 wines, many offered by the glass.
Pensacola Beach, Fla.
Heading east, our next stop is Pensacola Beach, where executive chef Gregg McCarthy helms The Grand Marlin, a stylish Gulf Coast eatery with a Caribbean flair.
McCarthy, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, also holds the prestigious distinction of having been invited to cook at New York’s James Beard House.
Although the restaurant just opened earlier this year, dinner crowds are already singling out their favorites. The popular horseradish-crusted Gulf grouper is one item the chef is quite fond of himself. But there’s so much more to choose from among the varied selections.
McCarthy supports the local fishermen, so he tries to keep it local. He looks to the Gulf to source the mahi-mahi for the crispy fish tacos with jalapeño-cabbage slaw, avocado salsa, sweet corn-black bean salad and cilantro crème.
Another mahi-mahi dish features the fish lightly blackened, seared and served with an Alexander sauce with shrimp and lobster.
When flounder is in season, he prepares it with a Parmesan crust and lemon-caper brown butter.
A real hit on the menu is McCarthy’s grilled tuna brushed with olive oil with a ginger-soy glaze. The sauce has been so successful that he’s thinking of bottling it. Another tuna dish, an ahi Asian salad, is served with avocado, mango, mint, red onion and mixed greens with sesame-citrus-basil dressing.
Yet another way McCarthy prepares tuna is Caribbean-style with jerk seasoning and mango salsa.
But he’s not done yet. McCarthy offers a tuna appetizer that encompasses three different preparations: three to four slices of seared rare ahi rolled in black spice and garnished with wasabi, pickled ginger and soy; poke tuna – Hawaiian-style tossed with Asian vinaigrette with soy, sesame, rice wine vinegar, a touch of chile paste, finely diced cucumber, tomato, ginger, garlic and green onions and topped with macadamia nuts; and crudo – Mediterranean-style, simply tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, black olives and preserved lemon.
Other seasonal specials from the Gulf include red snapper (best in the summer) pan-roasted until slightly crisp and then finished in the oven and served with grits soufflé and topped with shiitake mushroom red-eye gravy with ham, and pompano (best in spring and fall) baked in parchment paper with assorted mushrooms, crunchy julienned vegetables and a light herb butter.
The Grand Marlin prints its menu daily so customers will know that all items are at their freshest.
In addition to the restaurant’s substantial wine list, signature drinks as well as island cocktails such as the Mandarin Mango Mojito and the Citrus Rum Cooler are featured.
Panama City beach, Fla.
Just a few beaches away at Saltwater Grill in Panama City, chef Rob Burgess is living large.
“I love it,” says Burgess. “I’ve lived on the coast for eight years.”
The restaurant centerpiece is a huge 25,000-gallon fish tank, yet in Burgess’ world – the kitchen – all activities revolve around a 4-foot-long, 2.5-foot-deep wood-burning grill. “We cook everything on it,” he says.
Besides steaks, Burgess grills wild sockeye salmon, mahi-mahi, tuna, Chilean sea bass, seasonal grouper, scamp grouper and other seasonal fish as well as fruit.
“Scamp grouper is my favorite,” he says. “It’s versatile with a milder flavor. You can do anything with it.”
Burgess also notes: “The difference between scamp and black grouper is that scamp has denser flesh, so it can be used in a bouillabaisse or simply hickory-grilled with portobello mushrooms.”
Grouper is definitely a favorite at Saltwater Grill: In one week, the restaurant prepared more than 400 pounds of grouper. Daily specials have included pan-fried potato-crusted grouper. “One of our top sellers,” Burgess says, “is a macadamia-crusted grouper.”
For grilled fish, Burgess prefers to keep it clean and fresh, serving it “Floribbean-style” (a blend of Florida and the Caribbean) with a basil-lime beurre blanc and perhaps some grilled fruit. With grilled mahi-mahi, he likes to serve a pineapple-mango salsa.
His absolute favorite fish, however, is tuna, and his customers are also big fans. “I love it rare, seared in a pan with black and white sesame seeds and a pineapple-sherry soy sauce,” he says. He also grills it upon request.
Another favorite Gulf fish at Saltwater Grill is redfish. He blackens it and serves it with dirty rice with andouille sausage and green peppers and crawfish étouffée.
Flounder is prepared both as a fillet and whole stuffed with crabmeat dressing.
The restaurant also offers a broad wine list with many wines by the glass and a nice selection of half bottles.
“One of the great things about this place,” Burgess says, “is that you can have a lot of fun here.”
And an awesome amount of fantastic, fresh fish!