At the very least, I hope people who visit south Louisiana come away with a few stories to tell about the food. It is so specific and so tied to the identity of the place that it would seem like a waste of a trip if the visitor couldn't brag about the gumbo he tried, the abundance of shrimp and oysters and those sandwiches they call po-boys. Grand Isle seems custom-made to fuel such taste-memory souvenirs. Opened last spring by local caterer and restaurateur Joel Dondis and his business partners, Grand Isle is part of the entertainment district that Harrah's Casino is building along a new pedestrian mall by its hotel, parking garage and gambling hall. Most of the food is the kind of fare you'll find at family-friendly New Orleans neighborhood restaurants, with a few upscale touches, served in a much more spiffy setting and with the prices marked up accordingly. Grand Isle clearly aims for an upscale presentation of casual local food for downtown professional people and visitors.
The restaurant itself is beautiful, lined by warm, bare cypress, clean lines, big windows and huge photo prints of 1930s-era nobly weathered fisherman. As long as you actually like raw oysters and boiled shrimp, it's hard to have a bad time sitting at the restaurant's long, white marble bar, eating hand to mouth and drinking Abita drafts poured from ice-coated beer taps into frosted pint glasses. The restaurant offers changing happy hour specials at the bar, sometimes dishing out seafood for pocket change, and it's easy to see how people who work downtown could make this their after-work haunt.
Looking over the menu, something sure to catch the eye of both the adventurous visitor and seasoned local is the turtle stew, a much thicker, meatier concoction than the more common turtle soup. Grand Isle's version is teeming with chewy squiggles of turtle meat as well as small planks of oxtail, and it is much more mellow than the sherry-laced tang of turtle soup.
Another good place to start is the shrimp Biscayne, a dish of shrimp bathed in oil and spiced with jalapenos and very thin slices of garlic. It's simple and delicious but too small a serving to share around the table. The potted crab is also straightforward and very good, with the lump crab basically smothered under a butter sauce that tastes something like hollandaise. This dish carries a 'market price," and that price is expensive. At the other end of the scale, onion rings are ribbon thin and nicely done.
As for entrees, the best dish I had here at first sounded like the most unlikely choice given the restaurant's seafood theme: pot roast, which was like roast beef debris just before it actually becomes debris. The meat flaked under the fork easily and came with a small pile of the spicy pepper relish 'chow chow" on the side to spike it up with a pleasing, hot crunch. The quail was also done well " the skin crisp, the juices flowing " and was smartly paired with some lusciously creamy grits. Among the short list of po-boys, the best is filled with shredded duck, which is very similar to the duck po-boy that helped put the Jefferson sandwich shop Crabby Jack's on the map. Very rich, soft strands of meat are topped with thick-cut coleslaw to alternate the texture with some crunch and help alleviate the richness.
My favorite seafood dish was the shrimp romesco, prepared with a sauce that reminded me of a spicy, more exotic version of shrimp Creole. I've also had good luck with whatever fish the kitchen is serving on a given night, but that's not as easy a selection as it might sound. There's usually a choice of three fish, and on my visits, tuna was a constant while wahoo, drum and sheepshead alternated for the second and third slots. After you choose the fish, you decide if you want it grilled or sautéed, then you pick from one of four toppings. I would prefer to have the chef come up with his best combinations of these ingredients " i.e., craft a dish " though I can imagine the build-your-own aspect of this process appeals to some other diners. All the fish get attractive presentations on big, oval plates, which are filled out with aromatic popcorn rice and a side of very lightly cooked spinach.
The menu includes a few steaks and even Maine lobster, a high-dollar dish which speaks more to Grand Isle's proximity to Harrah's Casino than Louisiana seafood traditions. Meanwhile, the fried seafood platter starts with quality products, though the frying is lackluster and the portion is significantly smaller than the local standard for such combo feasts.
Grand Isle, however, is not always going to be judged by local standards. While the food is authentic enough to at least satisfy locals who don't mind paying a little more than they need to for casual cooking, the neighboring hotels and convention center ensure that the restaurant's main job will be giving visitors a taste of Louisiana. On busy nights, you can practically hear the stories they'll tell back home taking shape with every course.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Chef Jens Jordan prepares traditional seafood dishes at Grand Isle near the casino and convention center.