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Barbecue oysters amaze at New Orleans' Red Fish Grill
Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY 7:49 a.m. EDT April 10, 2014
The scene: At first glance, Red Fish Grill has little on the surface that would attract a devoted foodie in a city full of great hole-in-the-walls and classic eateries. Both its location, on sleazy Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, and its chain restaurant appearance from the street are potential turn-offs, if only because it looks uncomfortably like many tourist trap eateries dotting the Quarter and around the world. I only ate there for the first time several years ago because a former executive with the city's tourism office took me, explaining that when friends or family visited, she always took them to Red Fish Grill for their signature barbecue oysters, which she thought were one of the city's greatest dishes. She was right, and ever since we stopped in that night for some apps, it has been one of my must-visits in the Big Easy. So while you couldn't be blamed for taking a glance and continuing past Red Fish Grill, this would be a big mistake – it serves some of the best seafood in New Orleans, which is to say, some of the best seafood anywhere.
It is a large, bustling place with a busy main dining room surrounded by several smaller satellite rooms, a large bar and a few private event rooms. It has high ceilings and the buzz of a big city steakhouse, except the atmosphere is casual and whimsical, thanks in part to the art, including the fun tables, topped with painted swirls or geometric shapes. Every meal begins with a whole loaf of warm po' boy bread placed on the table inside a paper bag, a welcoming touch that helps set the informal mood – and reminds you that no one goes hungry here. Walls are intentionally faded brick with missing paint and lots of redfish art on the walls, from sculptures and metalwork to cartoons and more serious paintings of the locally popular namesake redfish, which is actually red drum, from the same family as bass. Even the bar stools are sculptures incorporating different examples of local seafood into their metal backs.
Red Fish Grill is part of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which includes five distinctly different eateries in the city, and this often confuses visitors because Ralph is one of several members of the famous restaurant family (Commander's Palace and the late Brennan's), who collectively operate more than a dozen places around New Orleans and from Disneyworld to Texas. While the Brennan name carries a lot of gravitas in culinary circles, many of the clan-run restaurants are unrelated, such as Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse just down the street.
Reason to visit: Barbecue oysters, alligator sausage and seafood gumbo, barbecue shrimp and grits, all side dishes and double chocolate bread pudding.
The food: It's all about seafood, and on any given night, the chef takes care to never put more than three land-based dishes on the menu, giving a small range of alternatives for non-seafood lovers (who are clearly missing the point). What makes Red Fish Grill shine is the fact that just about everything, from apps to mains to sides, is excellent, and it is truly hard to go wrong.
That said, there are some can't-miss dishes, starting with famed "Signature BBQ Oysters." These are fresh shucked, coated in cornmeal, flash fried, tossed in a sauce heavily featuring Crystal hot sauce, and then topped with a chunky, crumble-laden house-made blue cheese dressing. In short, they are a Buffalo wing made with oysters and they are unbelievably good and highly addictive. When I first visited, they used to be presented on half shells washed and re-purposed for effect, but the dish has become so popular they can no longer keep up and simply put them on plates. Even if you are eating someplace else, it is worth stopping in for a drink and a dozen (or more) of these.
Other standout starters include alligator sausage and seafood gumbo, which had won the title of New Orleans' Best Gumbo two years in a row when I visited last fall, and this is a city that loves its gumbo. Beautifully presented in cast iron individual Staub mini-pots, it includes big full shrimp, hefty slices of really flavorful Andouille alligator sausage, and lump crab meat and is fantastic, another must. It would also be hard to pass up the barbecue crab claws, which are not like the oysters but rather in the style of unique local specialty New Orleans barbecue shrimp, coated in a Worcestershire and butter sauce. The fried claws are drenched in sauce and laid out on a cheddar scallion biscuit with a second biscuit on the side: "One for sopping, one for dipping."
You could easily make a meal out of starters – but don't, because the main events can't be skipped. My favorite was the barbecue Gulf shrimp and grits which combines two regional specialties: New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp (with the same sauce as the crab claws) and Carolina Low Country favorite shrimp and grits. In this case they are large, head-on (tastier when cooked) shrimp doused in sauce and served on a huge bed of Creole cheese grits with unique fried green tomato croutons. Everything about this dish is a winner.
The signature entrée is hickory grilled redfish, which comes topped with sautéed Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat and over a hash-brown style mix of roasted mushrooms and potatoes with lots of tasso, a ham-like Cajun specialty of spicy smoked pork. The fish itself was the least exciting thing on the plate, just okay, but everything else in the dish was fantastic (by law, all redfish sold in New Orleans restaurants or stores is farm-raised and you can only get wild-caught by catching it yourself). Other popular entrees include the jumbo Louisiana crab cake, a big fellow who comes topped with a unique and tasty grilled green onion tartar sauce. The crab cake is quite good, but like the redfish, is outshone by its companion, a decadent creamy corn macque choux (New Orleans-style creamed corn, stewed with diced celery, onion and bell pepper). In every case the supporting cast here delivers and all the sides, complements and appetizers are standouts.
That would be enough to heartily recommend Red Fish Grill, but next comes dessert, a dazzling array of temptations. The house specialty is double chocolate bread budding, made with a combo of dark and semi-sweet chocolates, served with chocolate and white chocolate ganache and chocolate almond bark, and yes, it is as good as it sounds. If you can pass that one by, don't miss the whimsical take on a favorite New Orleans creation, the Bananas Foster ice cream cake. New Orleans used to be a huge port for imported bananas, and rum-flamed Bananas Foster was invented at Commander's Palace. The version here layers a light chiffon cake with vanilla ice cream, topped with caramelized bananas and rum sauce.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant is awash in accolades and was named one of the nation's top 10 seafood eateries by 10Best.com and USA TODAY readers, as well as by Travel + Leisure magazine, and was also a Top Pick of the city's Times Picayune readers choice awards.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – the barbecue oysters are a world-class appetizer and many other dishes here are must-tries.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 115 Bourbon Street, New Orleans; 504-598-1200; redfishgrill.com