It's common for New Orleans menus to offer the "Gulf fish of the day," but these days the fish in question might be much less familiar than before.
While the BP disaster has impacted Gulf oysters most severely, other Louisiana fisheries also are reeling from changes in supply and demand and one result is that local diners are finding different finfish on the menu.
"Things have definitely changed," says Ian Schnoebelen, chef at the French Quarter restaurant Iris. "I used to have drum, speckled trout, snapper. But now I'm using wild salmon and halibut from the Pacific and some East Coast fish."
At Patois, chef Aaron Burgau also has been serving more West Coast fish, like black cod, as well as less-common Gulf fish, like tripletail, which is similar in taste and texture to grouper. While tripletail is a prized catch for sport fishermen, it has been a rarity on local menus. It was the daily fish recently at the Italian Barrel and at the Latin-style seafood restaurant RioMar, and at Brigtsen's Restaurant it now often alternates with triggerfish, another popular Gulf sport fish.
"These fish have always been in our mix to some extent but now we're having to use a lot more of it," says chef Frank Brigtsen. "Triggerfish is actually one of my favorites. I love catching it when I go out on charters. But a lot of customers just don't know about it, so it's up to us to educate our (wait staff) and our customers too."
Seafood suppliers say restaurants' traditional Gulf fish — like drum, sheepshead and snapper — are still out there. But with so many fishermen working on cleanup efforts instead of fishing and with others idled by fishing area closures, some say the supply chain is being twisted out of recognition. Buyers take what is available, and that increasingly means less-common species from the Gulf and elsewhere.
"We want to project a positive image about our own seafood, but on the reverse side the supply is extremely limited," says Cliff Hall, co-owner of seafood distributor New Orleans Fish House. "Restaurants are mixing and matching to make sure they get enough. It would be difficult to target any one fish and say that's what you're going to serve now."
But these difficulties aren't universal. Some suppliers say they are flush with fish and some larger restaurant companies have had little trouble securing consistent supply for any local seafood besides oysters. Haley Bitterman, executive chef for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which includes the seafood-focused Red Fish Grill, says she's had no finfish supply issues, and a spokeswoman for Dickie Brennan & Co. reports the same experience.
"The only seafood that's been challenged is oysters," says Harlon Pearce Jr., owner of the Kenner-based distributor Harlon's LA Fish and chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. "We have plenty of fish. We just got another thousand pounds of drum. Shrimp is actually dropping in price now. We thought we'd be challenged on crabmeat but no one has run out yet."
Suppliers and restaurateurs, however, do share concern for pompano, the robustly-flavored Gulf fish central to traditional French Creole menus. While much of the pompano served here today is caught around the Florida Keys, by August fishermen usually begin taking it near Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands, an area currently closed to fishing by the BP disaster.
"It's a day-to-day issue for us," says Katy Casbarian, vice president of the old-line Arnaud's Restaurant, which prepares pompano four ways. "We've been going with the flow, but we are now talking about what we'll do if we can't get pompano."