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.
Whole Stuffed Flounder, New Orleans Style
Whole fish has caught on at restaurants all over. It’s part of the nose-to-tail dining ethos, applied to seafood, and it can make a stunning presentation on the table.
But in New Orleans, one particular angle on the concept is a longstanding local classic. Whole stuffed flounder is a throwback dish, one with nostalgic allure, an old fashioned aesthetic and a persistently loyal fan base that keeps it in demand at the small circuit of restaurants still serving it.
“It’s the kind of dish where when one goes out to the dining room, everyone who knows about it, their eyes light up and the people who don’t, they ask about it,” said John Fury, proprietor of Fury’s Restaurant, who serves the whole, stuffed fish fried or broiled.
Whole flounder is a big, plate-sized serving, usually weighing in at a pound and quarter or so. The payoff is big too. Different parts of the fish give different flavor and texture -- meaty here, thin and crisp there, with a flavor that tastes like fish without being “fishy.”
But it’s also easy to see why whole flounder is no longer a staple at more restaurants. Time consuming to prepare and sometimes hard to source, it requires a certain dedication from the kitchen. It tends to be pricy, often $30 or more. And it takes some diligence from diners. If you just jab your fork right in, eating whole flounder can feel like biting into a box of toothpicks. But scrape your fork away from the backbone, and the fish slips free in great white drifts.
Fresh catch, long history
Generations of New Orleanians learned this technique at the old lakefront seafood restaurants of the West End, where the cravings and the template for the dish were set. Bruning’s in particular made whole flounder its signature dish. Fury’s own rendition goes back to the Bounty, a West End restaurant John Fury’s father operated for years before opening the family’s Metairie restaurant in 1983.
While the original West End restaurants are all long gone, their traditions inspired some of the dishes at Blue Crab Restaurant & Oyster Bar, part of the new wave of waterfront eateries. Whole stuffed flounder is prominent on the menu.
The style endures at one very old waterfront restaurant too, this time across Lake Pontchartrain in Manchac. At Middendorf’s, whole flounder is a counterpoint to the famous razor-thin fried catfish at Middendorf’s. It comes to the table sizzling on a metal platter, split open and heaped with a dressing that’s chunky with shrimp and crab and browned it into a craggy surface.
Co-owner Karen Pfiefer says the recipe goes back to “Mama Josie,” or Josephine Middendorf, the original tastemaker for the restaurant, which her family opened in 1934.
It took a little sleuthing for chef Brian Landry to arrive at the recipe for the whole stuffed flounder he serves at Borgne, the modern Louisiana seafood house he opened with the Besh Restaurant Group in 2012. The New Orleans native grew up eating at West End restaurants, and in a quest to replicate it Landry asked suppliers and purveyors and cooks for insight on the old standard.
Naturally, this yielded conflicting reports. But he got enough information to devise his own method. Coated in rice flour, the whole fish gets a quick fry. Then the shrimp and crab dressing is planted on top, over the skin, and the fish is baked. Finally it’s finished off in the broiler and drizzled with lemon butter. Experienced flounder eaters can be observed flipping the fish over about halfway through to get at the underside, which has soaked in the sauce and juices.
Even as other dishes have cycled off the Borgne menu, Landry says flounder has proven enduringly popular.
“Locals love it and know how to eat it,” said Landry. “I love putting it on our holiday menus, when there are way more locals here. It just explodes.”
Whole flounder remains its own niche, though the dish can change radically from kitchen to kitchen. At Fury’s, the flounder is traditional, right down to the triangles of toast laid underneath, but it still also follows a distinctive house style, prepared in a style John Fury calls “funky bone.”
In the kitchen, cooks remove the backbone and splay one of the fillets in half, creating a three pronged presentation. It makes the fish a little more user friendly, and it increases the total fried surface area, creating more variation across the large dish.
Richard Hughes, chef/owner of the Pelican Club, is familiar with the old lakefront standard, though at his own upscale French Quarter restaurant he’s taken the dish in a much different direction. It’s fried and served with head and tail, but his flounder tastes more Thai than Creole, with a sweet, citrusy, chile-spiked sauce around the plate and, instead of seafood stuffing, a clutch of shrimp, a fat sea scallop and a multicolor hash of peppers and cilantro riding over the top.
“It took a little while, but it caught on,” Hughes recalled of the dish’s debut back in the 1990s. “Now, among the regulars, about half of them order it every time.”
Five spots for whole stuffed flounder
7900 Lakeshore Dr., 504-284-2898
601 Loyola Ave., 504-613-3860
724 Martin Behrman Ave., Metairie, 504-834-5646
30160 Hwy 51, Manchac, 985-386-6666
312 Exchange Place, 504-523-1504
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.