Long before Americans started watching extreme food shows and chef competitions on TV, Louisianans pursued the culinary sport known as camp cooking. It starts with a piece of Louisiana fauna just taken from the wild, and preparation involves a mix of family tradition and improvisation with whatever is at hand, plus a dash of bravado. Camp cooking is more about bragging rights than delicacy or strict adherence to a recipe.
A restaurant version of camp cooking, imbued with a distinct Latin edge, is the specialty of Basin Seafood & Spirits, a casual, unprepossessing restaurant that opened last spring. The regular menu reads like those at many local seafood houses, with char-broiled oysters and barbecue shrimp leading the way. Under the surface, however, there's a more contemporary take on the potential of Louisiana seafood. Mahi mahi is cut into large, bouncy chunks for ceviche strung with pickled onions and avocado, crab cakes are stuffed with poached quail eggs and a thick tuna steak was ruby-red inside and dusky-red outside from a kimchi coating.
The approach is a merging of methods from Basin's co-owners, Edgar Caro, a native of Colombia and chef/owner of Baru Bistro & Tapas, and Thomas Peters, a New Orleans native whose family operates a fishing charter business in Venice.
There is a nightly whole fish special, and I loved the redfish. Heaped with chunky red pepper-garlic sauce, like a Latin Sambal Oelek, its crackly skin was scored and stuffed with lemon and cebollitas and grilled corn finished the platter. Ordering the whole fish is no guarantee of greatness, however, as we experienced another evening with fried snapper that was bent like a boomerang around maque choux but also badly overcooked and bland. There's fried seafood (a platter at dinner, po-boys at lunch), though those options don't merit a special trip on their own, and fish and chips takes too much liberty with the concept, disappointingly replacing "chips" with roasted potatoes.
Basin Seafood is small, but by the fall it plans to add seating in a rear patio with its own bar and a view into the seafood boiling room. The restaurant serves interesting cocktails (the Yucatan firecracker combines tequila, grapefruit syrup and pickled jalapenos) and has a short but good wine list.
If a nonseafood dish catches your fancy here, don't ignore it. I'm glad I tried the pork chop special. Medium-thick, glistening and served on the bone, it was done one better with a topping of spicy and sweet tomato marmalade that stewed so long, the thin, red tomato skins tasted candied.
Dishes that sound conventional often have novel twists, like a steakhouse wedge salad enhanced with shrimp remoulade, its mild, creamy sauce given punch from chunks of blue cheese. By comparison, seafood gumbo with roux the color of hazelnuts is straight-up Louisiana traditional, and gloriously so.