Whole fish is showing up a whole lot more across New Orleans menus, and the new trend harkens back to a very old style and a deep vein of flavor.
As we plowed snowy-white meat from between the bones of a hog snapper recently at Pêche Seafood Grill, it wasn’t just the name of the fat, whole fish before us that brought to mind a Cajun boucherie.
Rather, it was the bigger picture guiding this fascinating new Warehouse District restaurant from chef Donald Link. Like the pig turned into charcuterie, chops and hams at the traditional boucherie, the fish come to Pêche whole and go out to tables as seafood salads, in fillets and as steaks and, most dramatically, intact from tip to tail, like our hog snapper.
What I like about eating a whole fish is the way it can exceed the sum of its parts, both in the flavor it delivers and the dining experience overall. For instance, the hog snapper was broiled in its own juices and with the flavor of its bones, skin and oils cooked into its flesh. It was also a huge serving, and eating it was a group effort that went beyond just sharing an entrée. It felt like unpacking a picnic basket prepared by someone else. The fish kept giving surprises and by the end the bits we extracted from little crevices proved the most flavorful.
There might be four or five different types of fish served this way at Pêche on any given night, and people are buying into the idea big time. Pêche is hardly alone. The new Magazine Street eatery Basin Seafood & Spirits has also made whole fish a centerpiece of its distinctively Louisiana menu, and other newcomers like the Italian restaurant Mariza in the Bywater and the rum bar and restaurant Cane & Table in the French Quarter feature them front and center every night.
But while it’s a more prominent trend now, the whole fish is not a new idea for New Orleans restaurants. I’ve looked eye to eye with plenty an intact pompano at Galatoire’s, for instance, and for many years our traditional Vietnamese restaurants and the smattering of authentic Mexican restaurants around town have been reliable spots to find tip to tail eating before we had buzzwords for it.
And in that way, the trend harkens back very far indeed. Talk to enough people in Louisiana and eventually you’ll hear the yarn about thrifty country folk who eat everything on a pig but the oink. What they mean is they didn’t waste a thing, and through necessity created some delicious foods along the way. Boudin was not invented for the pleasure of kings and queens, after all. The basic idea holds for seafood too, and it’s finding its way back to the restaurant menu. Let’s call it eating everything on the fish but the gulp.
Now, back at Pêche, there are more customary entrees than whole fish. So, like at countless other restaurants, you could roll in here solo, sit at the bar and have yourself a meal while tapping away at your iPhone – and Lord knows I’ve done this a time or two here. But that’s really not the best way to experience this place. The chef has a vision in play here, and while passing grilled vegetables and hunks of herb-strewn fish around a table of friends it becomes a very compelling one to share.
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St., (504) 522-1744; www.Pecherestaurant.com