When they name a restaurant after what may be the most memory-filled two words of your entire life, that place is certain to have a lot to live up to. And no, I don’t mean the New Orleans seafood restaurant called Grand Isle has to give me my father, mother and sister back, or all those summers we spent just off the south Louisiana coast, or all the fishing, shrimping and crabbing, or the escape from work and school, or even the only bathing we did for weeks – in the gently rolling green waters of the Gulf.
Truth be told, I’m sure the restaurant called Grand Isle, only a dice roll from Harrah’s Casino and the New Orleans Convention Center, is a whole lot nicer than anyplace we ever went out to eat on Grand Isle itself. We hardly ever went out anyway, since lunch and dinner were the seafood we’d just caught, boiled with spices or dredged in seasoned flour or cornmeal and pan-fried.
Still, for all its quasi-tropical comfort and design, Grand Isle becomes a bit more of a dive as the sun dips down. The very name would require it. My father took me to many a neighborhood bar when I was growing up (before grownups were made to feign horror at such things), so I know a good dive when I see one. And if all you want is limitless oysters on the half-shell and almost-limitless Abita beer, Grand Isle can be just the dive for you.
In addition to the wonderful grilled shrimp with Asian slaw pictured at the top, New Orleans-born chef Mark Falgoust offers his spin on “classic” New Orleans BBQ shrimp. As the local timeline goes, BBQ shrimp is hardly a classic, having been created at a Sicilian place called Pascal’s Manale in the mid 20th century. And as Texas goes, this is anything but BBQ. Still, shrimp cooked heads-on (headless shrimp are lucky to have 10% of the flavor) in butter, black pepper and garlic have nothing to apologize for.
Traditional New Orleans restaurant cuisine may be one of the few on earth to give Tex-Mex a run for top honors when it comes to using cheese. In the spirit of queso that’s been funnelled through France, locals love nothing better than a bubbly ramekin of molten crabmeat au gratin. There are a million variations all over town, but they all require mountains of French bread.
If you live long enough, you hear lots of great ideas. But I haven’t heard too many better than covering Gulf oysters on the half shell with a variety of toppings, most involving breadcrumbs and cheese, securing them in a bed of rock salt so they don’t tip over, then slapping them under a super-hot broiler. All three Grand Isle variations on classic Rockefeller and Bienville were winners.
In days of yore ( a.k.a. my childhood), any fish dish with crabmeat on top was called Pontchartrain, after the lake, just like anything with spinach was called Florentine and anything with grapes was called Veronique. This special at Grand Isle wasn’t called Pontchartrain, but that didn’t keep the fresh black drum baked in “chile butter” from being very happy beneath its crabmeat.
Then again, after all those summers on Grand Isle itself, I can’t help but think baking is for cakes and frying is for seafood. So of course I had to order Grand Isle’s fried seafood platter – a festival of shrimp, oysters, catfish and a kind of crabcake that resembled an overgrown hush puppy. Did I want fries with that? Yes, I do think I do.
Desserts at Grand Isle, like desserts almost anywhere worth much, are blasts from the past. There’s a super housemade cheesecake (who makes their own cheesecake anymore?), plus good bread pudding and carrot cake with cream cheese icing. There’s even a nod to the modern world with this chocolate brownie – studded with bacon! I promise you, though, it would take a lot more than some weird brownie to drag me back to Grand Isle of the present – when I find so much worth living for in Grand Isle of the past.