Neighborhood seafood restaurants are one of our city's best-known calling cards — family-friendly spots without pretense where platters of boiled crabs and crawfish, peel-and-eat shrimp and fried catfish are as welcome as delicate dishes of crab-stuffed flounder and trout meuniere.
Shelley Flick, whose grandparents founded Bucktown's R&O's restaurant, knows the formula well. She opened Sammy's Po-Boys & Catering after graduating college and opened her new restaurant, Heads & Tails Seafood and Oyster Bar, in Harahan in November. Here, diners either belly up to the bar for a dozen raw oysters and some friendly banter or sit down and let the likes of Gulf shrimp etouffee and fried, stuffed flounder come their way.
Chef Brandon Green, who worked at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen and The Red Maple in Gretna, oversees the kitchen and elevates dishes above casual seafood shack fare.
A green salad is topped with battered and fried asparagus spears, but it's the mound of lump crabmeat dressed in light and herby ravigote sauce studded with snappy capers that makes the dish memorable.
Redfish Pontchartrain is available with sauteed or blackened fish, and the latter has a characteristic crust the color of charcoal tasting of peppery herbs and smoke. The firm fish flakes away effortlessly, tumbling into a pool of lemony beurre blanc and fluffy mashed potatoes. A mound of juicy, sweet crabmeat completes the dish, a beautiful reminder of the bounty of fresh seafood at Green's fingertips.
On one visit, an order of crawfish beignets spent too long in the fryer and arrived the color of burnt toffee and were tough. But the insides were creamy and dense, like Creole hushpuppies, tasting of a savory crawfish-filled dough with bits of celery, onion and bell pepper.
The menu adheres to a straightforward Creole seafood concept, but there are a few wild cards, including tomato grits, a creamy, cheesy variation that gets a decadent kick from smoked Gouda. Those grits also come with a large bowl of New Orleans-style barbecue Gulf shrimp, where the plump crustaceans are partially submerged in a creamy Abita Amber-spiked sauce, heavy with butter and tucked underneath two giant slabs of toast. It's as decadent a dish as there is, and reminded me of why I keep on coming back to it in all its glorious incarnations, over and over again.
For dessert, sweet potato bread pudding soaked in spiced rum caramel sauce is like syrupy, creamy French toast. Candied pecans sprinkled on top offer a bit of crunch while the caramel pools into the crevasses of the soft, spongy bread.
No seafood restaurant would be complete without an oyster bar, the anchor for all things raw and shucked. Though the speed and dexterity that accompany a simple flick of the wrist and a pop of the knife never cease to entertain, it's the friendly, casual banter from the shucker that keeps customers coming back.
Near the end of my most recent meal at Heads & Tails, a shucker named Edward winked and nudged a glimmering oyster my way. Fat, briny and fresh, it tasted of the sea and of New Orleans all at once.