Seven Weeks of Seafood: Seafood consumption always soars this time of year for reasons that can be religious, cultural, seasonal or some combination thereof. In this series, we feature dishes and styles of seafood to take you beyond the basics, to show the diversity of flavors at hand and to inspire some new cravings.
The Raw Deal
Fresh, raw fish is the essence of simplicity, pristine and primal, a natural work of art. But even a masterpiece can be improved by the right frame.
Around New Orleans, that premise plays out in an array of raw fish preparations, under names like crudo and carpaccio, tartare and tiradito. Some are minimally augmented with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, others are set amid a palette of sauces, vinegars, herbs and fruit.
While each represents a different tradition or preparation, as these dishes spread across more menus their names are often used interchangeably. In general, crudo and carpaccio will bring sashimi-like slices of fish while seafood tartares, like the beef versions, are usually chopped. Tiradito occupies its own sub niche as part of Peruvian cuisine, though it most closely resembles a more elaborately finished crudo.
They all differ from the increasingly familiar ceviche, which cures the fish in citrus juices. Instead, these preparations keep the velvety texture and ephemeral freshness of raw fish, and they drop the accelerator on their flavor and allure.
They call for a skilled hand and an artful eye, a nuanced balance of flavor, and pristine raw ingredients, and some New Orleans restaurants have made these styles true specialties. These are my favorites:
2900 Chartres St., 504-598-5700
There’s an elemental elegance to chef Ian Schnoebelen’s overall approach at this regional Italian hotspot, and the tuna carpaccio might be its prime expression. The fish is almost translucently thin, which is achieved not by slicing but by pounding it out. The tuna lifts off the plate in delicate sheets with a golden hue of olive oil, a crackle of sea salt and creamy, nutty curls of shaved parmesan. The snapper crudo is the raw menu’s counterpoint. This gorgeous white fish is cut as thick as the grapefruit segments that join it on the plate, between bits of micro greens, dried lemon and a restrained dappling of oil.
527 Julia St., 504-875-4132
The size of a coffee shop and almost as casual, Carmo is also one of the more original and distinctive restaurants in New Orleans. Its raw fish dishes show why. Chefs Dana and Christine Honn are students of Peruvian cooking, and their highly traditional tiradito dishes start with aji amarillo, a deep yellow sauce flickering with chile heat and toasted Peruvian corn. Their kitchen uses an unusually diverse range of Gulf seafood (amberjack got the tiradito treatment recently), and the menu also fields vegetarian versions of these dishes with avocado replacing the fish.
535 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-599-2119
The tiny raw bar makes a big contribution to the menu at chef Nina Compton’s outstanding Warehouse District restaurant. Tuna becomes a beautifully rendered tartare with little dabs of creamy avocado, caviar and coins of radish. But the dish that’s on my mind whenever I come here is the hamachi crudo. The lushly buttery-tasting fish is briskly enhanced by cool planks of compressed melon, the delicately icy crunch of granita and bitter nasturtium petals. The dish started life as a one-off special and grew into a menu fixture. It’s easy to see why.
800 Magazine St., 504-522-1744
Whole fish get marquee treatment on the menu and command attention as they’re whisked through the dining room. But this raucously popular upscale seafood house from Donald Link’s group also serves fascinating small studies on the local catch at the raw bar. Chef Ryan Prewitt changes things up week to week, though a recent splay of tuna with fried kumquat and coins of peppery-sharp radish was representative of the house style.
3700 Magazine St., 504-895-2225
Climb the twisting staircase at this tight, colorful Colombian restaurant and you find a modish, almost hidden second-floor crudo bar. It works like a sushi bar, though the compositions here follow the South American standards of tiradito (made with flounder, segments of grapefruit and the big-kernel corn known as choclo) and a finely-diced tuna tartare with plantain chips and a tinge of sesame oil. The crudo bar is open only Thursday through Saturday, though most of its dishes make the regular menu served downstairs too.
5080 Pontchartrain Blvd., 504-885-5555
Peruvian tiraditos are the bold and unlikely stars of a menu that otherwise takes a crowd-pleasing tour of pan-Latin flavors. Tuna tiradito is a multilayered construction of fish, shaved melon, avocado, cucumber and jalapeno, splashed with a tart ponzu. For a newer version, thin slabs of yellowtail carry fat dabs of sriracha, flurries of shaved coconut and micro greens across a pool of lime, soy and chile oil.
808 Bienville St., 504-581-3467
A menu that has always been remarkable for its variety of seafood has lately been showcasing a broader catch from the Gulf, and different ways to serve it. Chef Tenney Flynn has been developing a chilled seafood section of the menu, which recently brought a crudo of both bigeye and albacore tuna with Asian pear and crisp, tempura-battered avocado.
2600 Dauphine St., 504-267-0640
The Franklin has always served some original takes on raw fish, starting with a tuna tartare mixed with equal parts watermelon on its original menu. These days the star raw preparation is the hamachi crudo, which strongly resembles a tiradito with its very sharp aji amarillo, herb-speckled sauce vierge and splay of avocado.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.