It takes some kind of nerve to set about re-inventing seafood restaurants in the French Quarter. It's as brazen as trying to reform barbecue in Kansas City or sourdough in San Francisco. You better know what you're doing or have a whole lot of friends who think you do.
When Gary Wollerman and Tenney Flynn opened a revolutionary seafood restaurant in the former D.H. Holmes Department Store warehouse more than a year ago, they appeared to have knowledge, friends and resources. The vast stockroom space was transformed into a sort of comfortable underwater amphitheater with booths the size of king beds, floor-to-ceiling steel beams running parallel to lanky fishnet curtains and focused spot lighting stippling the white tablecloths like sunbeams piercing the sea's depths. They talked about mackerel flown in from Japan, red mullet from Brittany, and seasonal Gulf catches like trigger and lemon fish. The opening wine list included 80 selections by the glass.
They garnered skeptics despite all this promise, which I know because I was one of them. The name, GW Fins, sounded just a little too trademarked (more Bubba Gump than Riomar) to signify a destination for avant-garde seafood dishes. And the prices presented a risk I wasn't sure I was willing to take. Why chance a Veracruz-style shrimp "coctel" when there's a definitive shrimp remoulade in half a dozen places within walking distance? Why get excited about John Dory when there's trout at Galatoire's around the block? Why hassle with parking to eat imported fried lobster tail when I can breeze over to Barrow's for an entire platter of otherworldly fried catfish at the same price? Why trust seafood to two guys who worked at the corporate level for Ruth's Chris' Steak House?
Why? Because of one cold-smoked oyster that embodies more depth of flavor than all of Germany's finest cold cuts. Because of sweet, ice-cold Louisiana stone crab claw meat, which has less use for its remoulade sauce than a good ribeye has for A-1. Because of wood-grilled pompano that tastes like it swam straight from the Gulf into a smokehouse; Flynn paired it with a cool melon salad, and I'm not sure I'll ever enjoy pompano another way. Because of pliant dumpling dough bursting at the crimped seams with nothing but lobster meat. Because of two simply fried softshell crabs set on a plate with a drop of creamy brown butter and a few cashews. That's why, as it turns out.
As a collection, Flynn's seafood preparations are perhaps the most fish-forward in town: with minimal side dishes, seafood is practically served a la carte. Both in spite of and because of this fish-forwardness, his creations are also some of the most exciting. He'll break a habit of batters and sauces so thoroughly that you'll wish he had left that dribble of lobster butter off the pompano plate altogether; you'll find yourself thinking that he should have saved the drawn butter for his cheddar cheese apple pie crusts, which, incidentally, he turns out as flaky as Parisian croissants. Flynn dabbles in duck, chicken and steak, but after eating his seafood, I couldn't care less.
A tangy shrimp broth with hot red chiles was such a light, lovely pairing to an enormous piece of Chilean sea bass that I almost forgot I was eating an endangered fish. A study of salmons incorporated a barely pink, mellow-flavored Copper River salmon, a darker and more forceful Alaskan Ivory salmon, smoked salmon from Canada and brilliant orange bubbles of salmon roe. All cooked medium-rare, the three types were as much alike as Chianti is like Merlot is like Tawny Port; eaten in the correct progression, from lightest to smokiest, they built upon one another like a well-composed wine flight.
Wine is a big deal here -- big in expense, selection and quality. When asked what I should drink with the $7.50 smoked oysters, even the most enjoyable waiter suggested a $13 glass of Sauvignon Blanc (the least enjoyable waiter harrumphed that I didn't want a bottle for the table). Fortunately, even a bottle of Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc from Chile chosen for its bargain $25 price tag enhanced most dishes I ordered that night.
In the rare case when a dish didn't work, it generally had nothing to do with the seafood. The curried rice accompanying a roasted whole striped bass was overcooked and flat. The "horseradish crust" on a drum fillet was bland as breadcrumbs. Mashed sweet potatoes with banana, bourbon and vanilla tasted merely like banana, bourbon and vanilla. Only the flavor of fried lobster tail was off, resembling tripe more than lobster.
There's a level of perfectionism at GW Fins -- an air of corporate polish -- that seems to promise that any problem that can be solved will be solved. One person's entire job is to circulate with trays of sweet drop biscuits that are more habit-forming than peanut M&M's. If an auditorium exists with better acoustics, I've never heard it. A year into the game, you'll see both Wollerman, in a suit, and Flynn, in chef gear, working. These guys absolutely know what they're doing.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The owners of GW FINS have made the former D.H. Holmes Department Store warehouse feel like an underwater amphitheater where seafood stars in bravura performances.