In the way that Spanish names like Romero and Rodrigue are considered Cajun around here, you can eat pork empanadas and fish prepared a la plancha at Borgne without questioning its claim to being a Louisiana seafood restaurant.
There is a Spanish theme at Borgne, the latest eatery from chef John Besh, but it is so deliciously caught up with local tradition that dining here feels much closer to Bucktown than Barcelona. It's also full of creative reinterpretations of those traditions, a refreshing reminder that Creole cuisine has many influences. So shrimp fritters, a fishing camp favorite, get a spicy, garlicky Asian sambal sauce and tuna — bronze-crusted and otherwise raw — is sliced over a pickled artichoke salad that could go on a muffuletta.
It is fun to sample through the menu, and crafting it was probably fun for Brian Landry. Previously executive chef at Galatoire's, overseeing a famously unchanging Creole menu, Landry joined Besh as a partner in Borgne, which they opened in January inside the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.
Like its host hotel, this restaurant is huge and has a sleek, modern design. Though pricey, it's also quite casual, with bare tables, colorful chalkboard art and as much focus on beer as wine. Order a canned microbrew and it arrives in its own coozie.
In preparing for Borgne, Landry spent a month in the Canary Islands, the Spanish holding that gave Louisiana its Isleno population during the colonial era. That explains an appetizer of warm goat cheese topped with hazelnuts and a pesto-like mojo verde, each part of which is a Canary Islands specialty. He also brings in the islands' own regional spin on Spanish-style fish a la plancha, which is griddled and finished with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Landry uses this to great effect on drum with pecans and crabmeat, revving up that Creole menu standby.
"Fish in a bag" is his take on the classic en papillote preparation, and if you've ever opened that parchment elsewhere to find a stew-like mess of overcooked fish, this version is redemption. The sheepshead was firm and flavored with caramelized onion and fennel and crab butter napped along with it inside the bag. Crabmeat stuffing and lemon butter erupts from the flounder, which is served whole and head-on in an impressive, platter-filling presentation. When you're about halfway done, flip it over and the unadorned bottom tastes even better, having absorbed juices previously above it. I wish restraint had won out with the pompano, a singularly fine fish that gets obscured here by a deconstructed romesco sauce with its cascade of almonds, hazelnuts and super-oily croutons.
Borgne doesn't seem like the place to stray from seafood, but the $10 lunch specials are worthy detours. In fact, you should plan a visit around Wednesday's rabbit sausage with orecchiette and broccoli rabe in a slurpable sauce somewhere between broth and rabbit gravy. Rabbit is popular in the Canary Islands, it turns out, but a dish this good can make a home for itself anywhere.