New Orleans, La. –
One of the thrills of sport fishing in the Gulf is the potential for a delicious surprise each time something takes your bait. Even when a skillful guide sticks you over a good spot for, say, red snapper or under a rig where amberjack are schooling, no one really knows just what from the vast inventory of Gulf fish you'll find on the hook until you reel it in. That's a little like the experience of dining at GW Fins, a high-end seafood restaurant in the French Quarter.
New Orleanians know their way around a traditional seafood restaurant. But GW Fins is onto something different. The menu changes significantly each day based on what chef Tenney Flynn secures from a web of dockside sources. It's not simply a matter of swapping trout meuniere for catfish amandine. Rather, the offerings are varied as grilled escolar under pineapple and basil glaze or meaty redfish crusted with pumpkin seeds. There might be 10 or 11 such entrees on any given menu here.
GW Fins has been doing this for 10 years now. The restaurant was the brainchild of chef Flynn and front-of-the-house manager Gary Wollerman (the G.W. of the restaurant's name). Previously, they were both executives at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, where Flynn was director of culinary operations for the whole company and Wollerman was its chief operating officer.
Their idea for GW Fins was to create something akin to that upscale steakhouse experience, only with seafood, and they often describe GW Fins as "a seafood restaurant on a steakhouse frame." From the kitchen's point of view that probably makes a lot of sense, though to me the comparison seems too modest. The meat of the menu at most steakhouses, after all, amounts to a handful of different beef cuts. What sets GW Fins apart is the array of different fish offered night to night, and just how often it changes.
This restaurant turned heads immediately by serving fish that few other New Orleans places stocked, and it's still a good place to look for such locally rare species as Dover sole, John Dory or bronzini. But most of the fish here have far shorter journeys. They often arrive whole, ready to be butchered in-house. Sometimes, the restaurant's suppliers send chef Flynn photos of their catch on the dock. "You want this?," they'll ask. "Can you use this?" That kind of supply relationship leads to some unusual and spectacular fish finds on the menu.
In fact, one way to plan your dinner is to scan Facebook for photos of chef du cuisine Mike Nelson posing with fish that could be trophies mounted on lodge walls. A huge silvery wahoo protrudes from either end of the travel cooler it arrives in. Here's an enormous plump fireback grouper, its top side a blazing, fire engine red; there's a cobia - aka lemon fish - so big it takes two cooks to hold up. When the fish is this beautiful, and varied, it's no wonder the guys about to cook it want to snap pictures.
Hopefully, we by now know we can't take our seafood for granted, but taking its full measure still isn't always easy. There is a vast inventory of good food fish, though only a tiny portion are bestsellers. The GW Fins kitchen is giving us a better measure of the depth and quality out there.
808 Bienville St., New Orleans, 504-581-3467