Food writer Ian McNulty sits down for a meal of under-utilized seafood meant to showcase what diners might be missing in the bounty of the Gulf.
The prospect of an exotic dining experience may conjure the unfamiliar food traditions of far-off lands or ingredients too luxurious for everyday meals. But recently I sat down for an intriguingly original dinner built around seafood that is not only found close to home but is also routinely discarded as soon as it’s caught — or else chopped up as bait to catch other fish.
It was a “trash fish” dinner, hosted by chef Tenney Flynn at his upscale French Quarter restaurant GW Fins. Through five courses, we sampled seven types of Louisiana seafood. I was seated between two avid Louisiana anglers who were familiar with all of them from their time fishing local waters, but who had each only ever actually eaten one or two examples from the selection over the years.
And that was the whole idea for this dinner. The Gulf is teeming with a huge diversity of seafood beyond the relatively narrow band of species supplied to restaurants and markets or coveted by recreational fishermen. If they can kindle demand for more variety, or at least showcase the possibilities, chefs like Flynn and a growing number of others understand they can reduce pressure on the most popular fish stocks, support fishermen by monetizing more of their catch, and bring something different up to the table.
The dinner was organized as part of last month’s Eat Local Challenge, which promotes greater awareness of foods produced close to home. Brian Landry at Borgne, and chefs Christine and Dana Honn at Carmo, each held similar events built around tastings of under-utilized Gulf fish as well.
These were each special events, with one-night-only menus. But their theme and aim is in line with a rising trend for using more variety of seafood and more parts of the already-familiar fish in restaurant meals. The prevalence of whole fish on more menus is one example. Another is the case of fish collars, those bony cuts of neck and fin that have lately been elevated from kitchen waste to frequent blackboard specials around town.
At GW Fins, our dinner progressed through a Mexican-style seafood cocktail of Gulf squid and bits of lionfish, the famously invasive reef raider that tasted smooth and succulent and little like grouper in this preparation. The saltwater gafftop catfish was fried in strips like its commonplace freshwater brethren, but was darker and tasted richer. And blackfin tuna was poached into bite-sized morsels of dense flesh to mix into an offbeat tuna salad.
As each course unfolded, I asked my dining companions if they’d order the same fish were they to see it again. The jury was split on a few (chewy, rather bland lady fish and alligator gar didn’t fair well), while this thoroughly unscientific poll uncovered a crowd favorite in the bonita, which was as dark as barbecue brisket and nearly as smoky after its preparation here.
Perhaps, however, the most revealing gauge of the night was nonverbal. As each dish arrived, the table would fall silent as people focused intently on the first tastes. Time will tell if there’s a commercial market for some of these fish, but in a room of curious Louisiana diners there was certainly avid interest in them.
808 Bienville St., 504-581-3467; www.gwfins.com