The prospect of an exotic dining experience may conjure unfamiliar foods from far off lands or ingredients too luxurious for everyday meals. But recently I experienced 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 lure other fish.
It was a “trash fish” dinner, hosted last week by chef Tenney Flynn at GW Fins. Through five courses, we sampled seven types of Louisiana seafood, from lionfish, the famously invasive reef raider that tasted smooth, succulent and a little like grouper, to saltwater gafftop catfish, which was darker and richer-tasting but still very similar to its commonplace freshwater brethren. I was seated between two avid Louisiana anglers who were familiar with every fish on the menu, but who had each only ever actually eaten one or two examples over the years.
And that was the whole idea for this dinner. The Gulf is teeming with fish 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 understand they can reduce pressure on the most popular fish stocks, support fishermen by monetizing more of their catch and bring something different to the table.
The dinner was organized as part of last month’s Eat Local Challenge, which promotes greater awareness of local foods. Borgne and Carmo each held similar events built around tastings of under-utilized Gulf fish as well.
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 pointed to 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 was nonverbal. When each dish arrived, the table fell 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.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.