There has been a sea change around town lately. No longer content offering the ‘___ of the Day,’ chefs have been reconsidering the tried-and-true while adding some progressive touches of their own. Pêche made waves when it opened in 2013, and GW Fins has quietly been thinking outside the tackle box for years, but for this piece I wanted to single out two others: the reinvented Grande Isle and newcomer Sac-a-Lait. Both deserve notice for what they’ve done to broaden the possibilities of what our waters offer.

Grande Isle opened to good reviews back in 2004, but over the years seemed to flounder a bit on the shoals of touristy patronage. Given its location on Fulton Street between Harrah’s Casino and the Convention Center, this isn’t too surprising. What is surprising is what chef Ryan Haigler has done since taking over last fall.

At first his changes were gradual. “They were just having trouble with identity,” Haigler says. He went through the menu and jettisoned the dishes that didn’t fit the ‘fishing camp’ theme, like tamales and tacos and curry. Then he rolled out his first changes, a fall menu built around items sourced from Covey Rise Farms and Good Food, an urban garden in Tremé. Since then he has been on a roll, and the latest summer menu shows how much good the right change at the top can do.

It isn’t just another seasonal, locally sourced menu at work here. Haigler grew up fishing and crabbing in South Carolina’s Low County and knows firsthand the value of his core resources. Fast forward several years and he was part of the opening team for John Folse’s R’evolution, and afterward did an extended tour with the high-concept outfit Dinner Lab. The result is an amalgam in which you see a respect for ingredients of the former wedded to the modern ambition of the later; Low Country infused, fishing camp fare with a bit of an edge. It isn’t fussy or overwrought, it just feels comfortable.

His Chili Butter Baked Fish is underscored by the lemon-and-chili-based compound butter, which is basted over-the-top during the cooking process and develops a bit of a crust. Paired with silver queen corn maque choux with sofrito and tomatoes, this is a flexible dish that can roll with the seasons. New dishes include his Creole Tomato Pie. An individually sized pastry shell is filled with a mix of caramelized onion and Creole and heirloom tomatoes, and then gets topped with a pecan-cheddar spread studded with crabmeat. Baked until bubbly and crispy on top, it’s a wonderful fusion of South Carolina and Coastal Louisiana cuisine. If it’s offered, be sure to try his She-Crab Soup infused with roe or the creamy Charleston-style crab dip, another southern delight that’s happily percolating through the fabric of the formerly resistant New Orleans cuisine.

Husband and wife team Cody and Samantha Carroll are directly tapped into the seafood culture of South Louisiana. Their first restaurant, Hot Tails in New Roads, cooks up crawfish from nearby ponds that they own and has gathered a slew of accolades along the way. For Sac-a-Lait, the duo renovated a former Sun Ray Grill into a soaring, contemporary space customized with furniture and fixtures made by the extended Carroll clan. The effect is transformative – with cuisine to match.

“We’d always done ‘fine dining’ style dishes in the cooking competitions,” Cody Carroll says. “The reason we were not doing it in New Roads is because we built that restaurant around crawfish and poor boys. We knew we could do fine dining, but it also wasn’t going to be that restaurant. This is that restaurant.”

The Carrolls most recently made names for themselves in New Orleans when they won the 2013 Louisiana Seafood Cookoff with Lost Fish, a dish that echoes French toast with a savory spin on the batter.

At Sac-a-Lait, chef Cody Carroll makes a lot of effort to reconsider dishes that might seem humdrum. His gumbo, for example, stands out for drawing as much from marsh as it does from sea. Smoked frog leg, pulled off the bone, adds a nuanced component that’s almost crab-like but subtly sets it apart. His roux gets an “X” factor from andouille that’s burr-mixed into the base itself for added punch. The elements that are built atop include twists like alligator sausage spiced with jalapeño rather than cayenne, and the inclusion of whipped Creole mustard potato salad to accompany Jazzmen rice as double-barrel starch components. The result is a gumbo that truly stands apart.

To get a more comprehensive sense of his approach, consider the Poisson Fume, basically a sea-based take on a charcuterie board. Cottonwood-smoked cobia is flanked by house-made plum and blackberry/lemon preserves along with bowfin caviar. Accouterments include a mix of cold-pickled cucumbers from Covey Rise reasoned with tarragon.

In August, look for the Carrolls to roll out some tasting menus as they work to fine-tune dishes they will be preparing for the James Beard House in New York.

Your Neighborhood Seafood Shop

It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Bevi Seafood Company in Metairie puts some deft spins on the classics. The Smokey Oyster Poor Boy pairs the fried bivalves with smoked Gouda and pastrami bacon, and the Peacemaker is a blue-collar surf ‘n’ turf featuring fried shrimp, roast beef debris and Swiss. Add live pickup by the sack and on-demand boiling for your party needs, and this is the quintessential neighborhood seafood shop.

Seeking Seafood

Grande Isle
575 Convention Center Blvd.
Lunch and dinner daily

1051 Annunciations St.
Dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays and Sunday brunch

Bevi Seafood Company
4701 Airline Drive, Metairie
Lunch Saturdays-Mondays; lunch and dinner Wednesdays-Fridays