Ian McNulty: New Orleans seafood culture still able to surprise, feed south Louisiana’s obsession _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - At Deanie's on Hayne, the classic seafood boat prompted a neighboring diner to snap a photo.

Our seafood obsession in southeast Louisiana is a many-splendored thing, omnipresent, discussed endlessly and, for all that, still able to surprise and illuminate when you stop to take a closer look.

That happened to me many times in the course of our series Seven Weeks of Seafood, which since Ash Wednesday has focused on both traditions and new trends around the city’s seafood culture.

Finessing with flounder

Though harder to find today, the whole stuffed flounder remains a particular New Orleans institution, maybe in spite of itself. After all, you don’t just need to know where to get it, you need to know how to eat it, scraping the fork away from its center to avoid getting a mouthful of bones. It’s comfort food that calls for a specific skill set, but once you have it down that might actually be part of the appeal. It was especially heartening to learn that at Borgne, a thoroughly contemporary New Orleans seafood house, the whole flounder is in steady demand, and never more so than at the holidays when more locals pack the dining room.

The bounty of bony bits

Bones are the whole point of another, newer niche at some restaurants, where chefs are mining the unlikely but compulsively delicious potential of erstwhile off cuts. These are the odd bony bits around the necks and fins of fish that, with some special attention in the kitchen, yielding richer flavor and distinctive tastes from fish we’re already using.

Charcuterie of the sea

Growing interest in seafood charcuterie (the subject of today’s feature) is cut from the same cloth, and based on finding new flavor by using more of the animal. What was most surprising here was to find the trend most fully expressed not at the city’s avant garde bistros but at Red Fish Grill, Palace Café and Kingfish, three approachable, familiar New Orleans restaurants that are right out in front on this one.

Frying with the seasons

Looking for a different take on fried shrimp brought me to salt-and-pepper shrimp, (sometimes called salt baked shrimp), a peppery, twice-fried dish served at some Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. While I focused on shrimp, there are also salt-and-pepper oysters when supplies allow and soft shell crabs in their season. There’s always salt-and-pepper something on these menus, it turns out, but only what’s good and plentiful. These aren’t the type of restaurants that trumpet their seasonal menus or local sourcing bona fides, and yet this dish revealed synchronicity with them.

A relic that resonates

For a flavor much more uniquely New Orleans, there was the seafood boat, a buttered loaf of sandwich bread filled with fried seafood. You might expect low carb sensibilities to have relegated this relic to remember-when status. And yet it endures at a handful of eateries as a special that can be nostalgic, always turns heads and usually yields leftovers.

Raw, and dressed for the weather

More restaurants are serving increasingly elaborate raw fish creations to the tune of tartare, crudo and even tiradito, a specialty of Chilean cuisine. These dishes are compelling year round, but they’re never more satisfying than in hot weather, which of course is on the way. Expect more artistry around your raw fish as the trend rolls on.

Carrying a torch, and passing it on

Here’s a dish we all think we know: blackened fish, a New Orleans original and one of the few iconic American dishes of the 1980s still in popular currency. Beyond its name recognition, however, blackening too often leads to burnt, over-seasoned fish. Chefs revealed that the real deal requires timing, confidence, intuition and nuance. In short, it requires a good teacher, and we’re lucky to have chefs still carrying the torch in this town and passing on what they know.

And that was the main lesson of this series. After all, you need more than bountiful waters to feed a seafood culture. It takes passionate people from the boat to the kitchen to the table. For that, New Orleans is fortunate many times over.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.