Unconventional cuts of fish, raw seafood and other changes are rising in popularity, adding to the standard lineup at New Orleans restaurants.
New Orleanians know the routine well enough: Lent arrives, jokes regarding the “sacrifice” of eating fish instead of meat make the rounds, and people start gorging on fried seafood platters, oyster po-boys and the grilled fish du jour.
As a new Lenten season gets underway, however, some interesting changes are weaving their way between the usual roster of local dishes. Chalk it up to more adventurous diners, more cross-cultural culinary interests, and to chefs pursuing a whole-animal approach with fish, similar to the nose-to-tail ethos sometimes applied to hogs or chickens in restaurant kitchens. In fact, some New Orleans restaurants are even making a case for pieces and parts that would have probably ended up as the makings for fish stock not too long ago.
Consider, for instance, some of the hottest menu items these days at Pêche Seafood Grill, the Warehouse District restaurant chef Donald Link and his partners opened last year. This upscale restaurant receives everything from single-serving flounders to 100-pound tunas intact from its suppliers, and then undertakes an in-house butchering process that gives both the kitchen and the raw bar a lot more to work with than standard fish steaks and fillets. So when drum fish is trimmed down for entrée servings, the bits leftover are smoked into dense, aromatic pieces of fish and worked into seafood salad appetizers.
And then there’s the fish collar — a narrow cut behind the gills that includes bone, skin and, usually, a fin. They look like something that might have hit the trash can before, but now these collars are coveted specials at restaurants working with whole fish.
GW Fins in the French Quarter is another example, and here collars are often served with chopsticks for customers to pick between the bones for morsels of its meat that prove vividly flavorful. Fish cheeks, fish bellies and even the occasional backbone are broiled or grilled for off-the-menu specials.
Fishermen and avid fans of fishing camp cooking have long understood the pleasures to be found from the off cuts and less-than-pristine parts of the catch, and so have sushi bar chefs, who routinely serve broiled fish necks as appetizers. Now it seems we’re seeing the leap of faith in such flavors land on white tablecloths and New Orleans neighborhood-style dining rooms.
That helps explain the blend of traditions charging up the familiar Louisiana seafood options at Basin Seafood & Spirits, a year-old Uptown eatery where the dining room and patio have the look of a fishing camp but the kitchen can feel more like a Latin American restaurant. After all, one partner here comes from a family of charter fishing operators and another is chef who hails from Colombia.
At Basin, gumbo and raw oysters share the menu with whole grilled redfish with a gravy boat of green, garlicky chimichurri and a South American-style tuna tartare. This dish of pink, raw tuna and avocado is finished with a ridge of potato chips for scooping. Those are salt and vinegar Zapp’s, from popular River Parishes chippery. A shortcut? Hardly. When you’re inviting people to explore new possibilities, a little help from a beloved local brand can’t hurt.
Basin Seafood & Spirits
3222 Magazine St., (504) 302-7391; basinseafoodnola.com
808 Bienville St., (504) 581-3467; gwfins.com
2900 Chartres St., (504) 598-5700; marizaneworleans.com
5080 Pontchartrain Blvd., (504) 885-5555; cocinamizado.com
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St., (504) 522-1744; pecherestaurant.com