A seafood platter in New Orleans is usually a feast of the familiar. But lately a different sort of platter has been surfacing, variously stocked with tuna rillettes, cured cobia prosciutto, garfish tasso or octopus “headcheese” tinted a purplish black with squid ink.
They draw from a new trend for seafood charcuterie, and they follow the principles, techniques and terminology behind the meat boards that have become fixtures on so many menus.
Seafood charcuterie has been gaining ground around the U.S., and it’s catching on in New Orleans. Full-fledged spreads are served at a handful of local restaurants and more individual examples now dapple the menus at others.
Palace Cafe even built in some infrastructure around it. Last year, the Creole brasserie from the Dickie Brennan & Co. group completed a major renovation that added a new bar and lounge with a dedicated charcuterie kitchen. Here, chef Rene Bajeux oversees production of both meat and seafood delicacies, combining traditions of his native France with more original interpretations.
“The fun part is we can use so many things. It doesn’t have to be classic, you can play around with it,” said Bajeux.
For tuna rillettes he cooks fish in olive oil, rather than pork in lard, and mixes in sundried tomato, pine nuts, even a blast of Sriracha hot sauce. His kitchen turns shrimp and smoked redfish into a smooth mousse for links of seafood sausage, and there are blocky cuts of that octopus headcheese to spread on sliced baguette.
Ancient ways, new flavors
Elegant chilled platters of raw shellfish and seafood salads are a French bistro tradition found at some New Orleans restaurants, and raw dishes like crudo and tartare have built a niche too. But while raw presentations highlight the primal essence of a catch, seafood charcuterie is more about the transformative potential of techniques originally developed to preserve meat and use more of the animal.
For diners, it’s a different way to experience seafood, one that corresponds well the shared plates snack-and-sip style now so popular. For chefs, its a creative outlet for familiar fare, and some are running with it.
“I like taking what we’re so accustomed to seeing and using it in completely different ways,” said chef Nathan Richard, who added seafood to his charcuterie program at Kingfish in the French Quarter during Lent this year.
A recent spread ran the gamut from crawfish boudin and shrimp-flavored chips standing in for cracklin’ to a creamy catfish terrine edged with radish and frog rillettes packed into a miniature iron skillet under a cap of butter, with various pickles, mustards and marmalades as accompaniments.
Red Fish Grill, Ralph Brennan’s seafood restaurant on Bourbon Street, was n earlier adopter of the trend, introducing its own seafood charcuterie board about two years ago. Executive chef Austin Kirzner said it’s become popular both with his customers and his staff.
“It gets competitive in the kitchen,” said Kirzner. “Our sous chefs are competing, I’m competing, we all want to get the next thing on the board.”
Some staples to emerge are the snapper aquachile, a spicy, marinated, close-to-raw preparation, and the “blackened tuna roll,” made from morsels of fish formed into cylinders and seared only at the edge. Sliced on the board, it looks like rare pork tenderloin.
The exact composition changes day to day based on the chefs’ ideas, the seasonal haul and even different tools turned to the task. For instance, Red Fish Grill has lately been using a dehydrator to make fish jerky.
“We’re trying to use every part of the fish that comes through our door,” Kirzner said. “It’s partly a recognition that fish is expensive, but it’s also to respect the fish.”
Dipping into the trend
More examples turn up on other menus one at a time. Many seafood dips share common ground with seafood charcuterie, resembling seafood pâté or terrines, and these make easy access points. Some examples of note: the smoked drum mousse at Kenton’s, the smoked mullet blended with field peas at Primitivo and the sardine dip at Grand Isle, where the strong, oily fish is tamed by a sweet/sour seam of Steen’s cane syrup vinaigrette under delicate wafers of dehydrated hot sauce.
Domenica has long served a charcuterie-inspired version of octopus carpaccio, which is pressed, sliced paper-thin and arranged as a mosaic on the plate, lacquered with olive oil and dressed with citrus and fennel.
A newer entry appears at Bayou Wine Garden, which opened adjacent to the related Bayou Beer Garden early this year. Next to the spicy coppa and duck ham, the charcuterie list here has a rendering of alligator tasso, served in cured, highly seasoned slices, in a style similar to pork tasso from Cajun smokehouse tradition.
At Kingfish, Richard recently served garfish tasso, which tastes remarkably like pork at the first bite before its gamier fish flavor registers. Now, he’s trying to bring choupique more directly into the charcuterie rotation too. An abundant catch in Louisiana marshes, choupique is known for its roe, which is now used at many restaurants in place of imported caviar.
“But I don’t see the meat on menus and that bothers me. What’s happening to the rest of it?” said Richard.
Like garfish, choupique has a strong flavor. Though that’s potentially offputting for diners accustomed to milder fish, to Richard it simply underscores why it’s a good candidate for the techniques and tasting board sample portions of charcuertie.
“I don’t want people to just taste one thing, I want them to see how they compare and stack up,” said Richard. “One thing opens the door to the next.”
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