One of the many advantages of Gulf coast dining derives from the region’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water which is home to more than 200 species of finfish and hundreds of other varieties of marine life.

The region is renowned for wild-caught seafood and ranks at the very top in exporting Gulf shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, crawfish, tuna, and other seafood to locales across the U.S.

Fortunately, although many of the tasty sea creatures that appear on local plates are seasonal, plentiful delicacies can be enjoyed year-round. Some finfish and shellfish are more abundant at different times of the year, but something wonderful “that swims” is always available!

The proximity to the Gulf – and the area’s many lakes, rivers, bayous, ponds, and marshes – provides chefs and diners with freshness, top quality and diversity of options. And when those awesome area chefs put the Catch of the Day in the pan, that’s when the fun begins!

Nowadays, Southern-fried chefs are into a lighter style of blending seasonings for seafood frying. The coating or batter isn’t the only lighter aspect of the dishes. Let’s begin in the northwest Florida’s panhandle, where top-notch chefs enlighten and entertain guests with inspired, innovative cooking sensations.

Stinky’s Fish Camp Seafood & Wine Bar.
At Stinky’s Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., acclaimed chef Jim Richard works with Chefs/Owners Todd Misener and Brannon Janca.

Richard, who hails from Lafayette, La., has been cooking on the Florida coast for more than 15 years. He served as executive chef at Flamingo Café, opened Cuvee Beach as general manager, and, in between his own projects, found time to open Zampieri’s Harbor Grille in 2006. He began his first business, which he still operates, Blue Mountain Catering company, then bought his first restaurant, The Lake Place, then opened Stinky’s.

Richard, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, pulled together his experiences – including cooking in Five Diamond hotel kitchens across the country and working with Commander’s Palace Chef Jamie Shannon in New Orleans – to create an incredible menu and wine list at Stinky’s.

In addition to the sandwiches and baskets of crisply fried seafood, specialty dishes not often seen on menus beckon at Stinky’s. Stinky’s Stew, for example, is one such item, chock-full of tender, succulent morsels of shrimp, mussels, Gulf fish, and crab legs in a garlic seafood broth, served with a pressed, stuffed, crab po-boy wedge on the side. This dish is great to share. There’s even a side order of crawfish hushpuppies on the menu!

The signature entrée, House Specialty Catfish Meuniere, is adapted from Richard’s grandfather’s creation. On the lighter side, raw oysters, prepared as shooters, ceviche, or with a sauce, are available daily. Baked oysters are served on the half shell with a variety of toppings including smoked cheese, bacon, and horseradish; spinach and mushroom; and garlic butter. Other appetizer choices include Fried Green Tomatoes & Creamy Crawfish Étouffée, and Blackened Gulf Shrimp.

My favorite light, southern-fried treats, however, are the grouper squares with three sauces. For this dish, Richard dips freshly cut squares of grouper into flour, then an egg wash, then Zatarain’s seasoned corn meal before frying. The fish is so fresh, a squeeze of lemon would be just perfect, but the variety of the sauces – Remoulade, Smoked Jalapeño Rouille, and Smoked Tomato-Jalapeño Tartar – take the dish into another realm entirely. The three sauces are like lagniappe!

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. Just a few miles west of Stinky’s, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar offers up the cuisine of another extraordinary cook, Chef Partner Innocent Utomi, who practices his art in the sophisticated, yet relaxed, Sandestin setting.
A native of Nigeria, Utomi, a French-trained chef, has already made his mark at Fleming’s in his time – a little more than a year – as Chef Partner. His background includes studies and an apprenticeship in London, and, in the U.S., he’s cooked in Rhode Island and Miami, mastering culinary styles from varied cultures.

At Fleming’s, Chef Utomi has really found his groove, utilizing fresh local products and gifts from the sea to complement the restaurant’s fabulous veal, lamb chop, chicken, and corn-fed USDA Prime beef dishes.

Seafood entrees include a chile-soy sauce Lobster En Fuego; Barbeque Scottish Salmon Fillet with three mushroom salad; Tuna Mignon with poppy seed au poivre and tomato sherry vinaigrette; and Seared Scallops in a puff pastry of sautéed, fresh vegetables with lobster cream sauce.
For guests who just want to enjoy a light repast in the bar with a cocktail or perhaps a glass of wine, Fleming’s offers 100 wines by the glass and has a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list.

Chef Utomi prepares lighter fare for the bar and appetizer menus, such as the Chilled Seafood Tower, Crab Stuffed Mushrooms with béarnaise sauce, Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, Shrimp Cocktail, and the pièce de résistance, Lobster Tempura, served with tempura vegetables and red jalapeño pepper and soy-ginger sauces.

To make this dish, Chef Utomi splits three 3-ounce Maine lobster tails (about 9 ounces of lobster per order) lengthwise into six strips. The lobster is accompanied by seasonal vegetables – primarily asparagus, mushroom and red pepper – prepared in the same fashion, along with the two sauces. Daikon sprouts top the dish.

For wine pairings with this exquisite dish, try a Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs or Ceago Vinegarden Sauvignon Blanc, Kathleen’s Vineyard, from the Clear Lake American Viticultural Area.

Felix’s Fish Camp Grill. Further west, diners can stop in at  Felix’s Fish Camp Grill in Spanish Fort, Ala. This restaurant serves more than 300 pounds of fresh Gulf fish (500 pounds in the summer), 40 pounds of crab stuffing, and thousands of hush puppies to more than 1,000 people on a daily basis.
“This is a food factory, but everything is made from scratch daily,” says George Panayiatou, Felix’s director of culinary operations. “We cook 750 pounds of turnip greens per week,” he says, “making up two fresh batches daily.”

The restaurant’s specialty fish – grouper, speckled trout (in season), mahi mahi, and white fish – are wild-caught, as are the Gulf shrimp.

In a given week, the restaurant buys 500 pounds of jumbo shrimp (16-20 shrimp per pound), and another 250 pounds of smaller shrimp for gumbo and shrimp salad. In addition, the restaurant uses thousands of pounds of Gulf blue crab meat weekly for crab dishes.

“We use the leg meat in gumbo, and the claws are sautéed either in garlic butter or fried, and the backfin and lump crab appear in various dishes such as crab cakes, West Indies Salad and crab soup,” Panayiatou says. The restaurant also sells 5 to 10 gallons of “to go” food every day. This includes gumbo, soup, grits, and potato salad – comfort food to provide sustenance and feed the soul!

Panayiatou, who trained current Executive Chef Howard Grayson, says the Felix’s team, from servers to chefs to managers, reflects the philosophy of founders and brothers David and Angus Cooper. Their philosophy includes tenets such as great food, great service, absolute cleanliness, ‘no cutting corners,’ and the importance of integrity and ‘everything in its place.’

The brothers wanted to create a casual, fun place that looked like an old tin shed and would serve fresh, fried fish non-stop. However the menu items, although simple and fresh, are nuanced and enhanced with gourmet touches, such as the restaurant’s many sauce preparations. Also, the restaurant’s seafood, as it turns out, is primarily baked, sautéed, grilled, or boiled, with just 30 percent going into the fryer. 

Menu items include Shrimp & Grits, sautéed shrimp on stone ground grits with rosemary cream sauce (lunch); Softshell Crabs Three Ways, served with meuniere, almondine, and hollandaise sauces (dinner); Oysters Felix, Oysters Rockefeller, and Oysters Casino; and steaks, which can be topped with grilled shrimp, fried oysters, or Crabmeat Oscar.

The lightly fried cornmeal oysters with dipping sauces are a favorite dish. The fried bivalves appear in a number of dishes, whether alone, on po-boys, or in combination with other southern-fried seafood. The oysters are rolled in a specially blended cornmeal mixture with a touch of white pepper and cayenne before frying.

“We believe in keeping the simplicity and freshness of the local seafood caught right off our coast,“ says Panayiatou.

A Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc or an Italian Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio would make a fine accompaniment to the oysters.
Mansur’s on the Boulevard. The next stop on this culinary journey is Mansur’s on the Boulevard in Baton Rouge, La. Although the restaurant’s ambience is warm and inviting, the setting is definitely upscale.

The all-encompassing menu begins with the basics such as fresh, raw, and charbroiled oysters, crab cakes, and shrimp cocktail. Then the cuisine scales up to include epicurean treats such as the sesame-crusted, seared Ahi Tuna with wasabi and soy syrup appetizer, and Cream of Brie & Crabmeat Soup.

Executive Sous Chef Austin Harrel prepares the Eggplant Camellia, another stunning starter, meticulously, using special care in coating and frying the eggplant medallions. The assembled creation begins with beurre blanc sauce on the serving plate. Next, several fried eggplant medallions are stacked on the sauce, followed by the sautéed crabmeat. The dish is crowned with dill hollandaise and garnished with fresh, finely chopped parsley.
For home cooks, Harrel offers some frying tips. First, he recommends using a deep fryer, one with a basket and a lid, that holds about a gallon of oil. “That’s a much better choice than a pot with grease in the kitchen. Grease fires are too common,” he says.

“The most important thing is heat control so you don’t burn the grease or come out with soggy food,” he adds. If the batter doesn’t stick on, it probably means there were some wet spots on the food.

During double-battering, Harrel recommends flouring, shaking off the excess flour, dipping the item into the egg wash, then going back to the flour; but, making sure that every spot is coated with the flour.

“People wonder why their seafood fry doesn’t come out crispy,” he says. “It’s probably because the grease wasn’t hot enough,” he says, noting that the temperature should be in the 350- to 375-degree Fahrenheit range.

“Whatever you drop in, you have to compensate for,” he says, “because the shrimp or the fish or whatever brings the temperature down about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s very tricky.”

Harrel also suggests not overloading the fryer; there should be plenty of oil around the items so they can fry evenly.

If diners can get past the fabulous starters, they’ll find much more to enjoy and savor on the Mansur’s menu, including steak, Veal Oscar, lobster, Duck Mansur (roasted, boneless duckling), pasta and seafood presentations, and a varied array of fresh fish preparations. There’s also the Mardi Gras Crab, a fried, jumbo soft shell crab stuffed with seafood.

Marsur’s has a 275-label wine list which has won the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator. The keeper of the wine list, certified sommelier Rodney Willis, will be glad to help with pairings. 

For the featured dish, Eggplant Camellia with Crabmeat and Dill Hollandaise, he recommends a 2007 Robert Foley Pinot Blanc from Napa County or a Chehalem 2006 Cerise, a blend which is (roughly) 80 percent Gamay Noir to 20 percent Pinot Noir.

Prejean’s. The final destination on this wine and dine odyssey concludes where it started, in a sense, with a chef that was born in Lafayette, La. The man, Brett Breaux, currently presides as general manager of the classic Cajun restaurant Prejean’s.

Breaux, who was the chef in his family’s famous Breaux Bridge restaurant, Café des Amis, for five years, went to New Orleans for the chef’s customary “hotel tour of duty,” he says. He joined the Airport Hilton as executive Sous Chef, graduated to executive chef, and followed this experience with a stint at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla.

He returned to Louisiana with the opening of the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans and worked as banquet chef at the hotel for several years.
Following Hurricane Katrina, he briefly went back to Amelia Island, but, wanting to help in the New Orleans rebuilding process, he took on the role of executive chef at Windsor Court Hotel.

While with the Windsor Court, Breaux availed himself of the opportunity to visit and cook at hotel properties in Italy and St. Petersburg, Russia. “I learned some incredible stuff there,” he says.

At Prejean’s, he’s returning to his roots, but with lots of blossoms and branches from his hotel experiences and travels.

The Prejean’s menu showcases many of his experiences yet retains its focus on Cajun culinary culture. Fried eggplant is again a star here, with several dishes to cause instant cravings in aubergine lovers.

One great eggplant dish is the golden fried Eggplant Pirogue Louis dinner entrée. Presented with a boat-load of fresh veggies, the dish features half an eggplant, breaded, fried, and filled with shrimp, crawfish, and crab, and topped with a sauce Louis.

Other exciting dishes on this seemingly endless menu include Crawfish Enchiladas (entrée or appetizer); Catfish Grand Chenier with shrimp and crab stuffing; and the Seafood Skillet Fondeaux for Two, a medley of shrimp, crab, crawfish, and sautéed spinach in crab butter cream sauce.

Prejean’s “Festival” platters are amazing. The Crawfish Festival Platter, for example, includes crawfish bisque, crawfish étouffée, fried crawfish, crawfish pie, and crawfish boulettes. Or, for another incredibly edible assortment, try the Tout Que’ Chose (“Lil’ bit of everything”), a mélange of fried frogs legs, crawfish tails, mushrooms, tender alligator nuggets, popcorn shrimp, fried cheese, and tasty crawfish boudin balls, served with sherry wine and Creole sauces.

Nibbling doesn’t get any better than this! To accompany the fried mini-feast, try a Mumm Napa Brut or a Bertani Due Uve Pinot Grigio-Sauvignon Blanc blend.

Your culinary journey is just beginning!

RESOURCES
Stinky’s Fish Camp. 5994 County Road 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., (850) 267-3053, Stinkysfishcamp.com

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. 600 Grand Blvd., Sandestin, Fla., (850) 269-0830,
Sandestin-steakhouse.com

Felix’s Fish Camp Restaurant. 1530 Battleship Parkway, Spanish Fort, Ala., (251) 626-6710,
Felixsfishcamp.com

Mansur’s on the Boulevard. 5720 Corporate Blvd. A, Baton Rouge, La., (225) 923-3366, Mansursontheboulevard.com

Prejean’s Restaurant. 3480 NE Evangeline Thruway, Lafayette, La., (337) 896-3247, Prejeans.com