Louisiana finds replacements on menu for seafood favorites affected by oil spill

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010;

NEW ORLEANS -- The Somethin' Else Cafe in New Orleans unveiled new menus just weeks ago.

Already, they are filled with broken promises.

Jumbo shrimp is no longer on hand to fill a basket that should have eight pieces. Customers can get only one crab cake, not two, for $13. And "The Trinity," an omelet with shrimp, crabmeat and fried fresh catch, has become harder to guarantee.

Enter the humble Louisiana crawfish, a small, lobster-like creature, also known as crayfish.

As other crustaceans have slipped down the restaurant's menu because they thrive in the third of the Gulf of Mexico that has been closed to fishing, the crawfish, found in freshwaters not yet tainted on the western side of the state's coast, has clawed its way to a more prominent position. Crab-and-corn soup has become crawfish-and-corn soup. A seafood gumbo that once featured generous portions of crab and shrimp is now packed with even more crawfish meat.

If any place can serve as an instant gauge of how the oil spill has altered Louisiana's seafood industry, it is New Orleans, where servers shuck oysters by hand, gloveless and confident.

Restaurants in the French Quarter brag about serving homegrown Louisiana seafood, which makes up about 30 percent of the U.S. domestic product, and so there is no question that the loss of the normal supply of shrimp, blue crabs and oysters is being felt here first. But unlike cities that are advertising non-gulf seafood, New Orleans is not abandoning local catch; it's embracing what remains.

Prices may rise and menus may change before the final toll of the spill is known, but chefs here say that as long as part of the Louisiana coastline remains open, they will tap into their culinary creativity before turning to imported catch.

Alligator will likely become more common on menus. Crab cakes may be made of silver carp, which one chef swears tastes the same if cooked right. And restaurants renowned for grilled oyster are already experimenting with grilling mussels.

"We have some of the most creative chefs, and they're going to do whatever it takes to survive," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "They will always have seafood on the menu in New Orleans."

But as oil continues to wash ashore, Smith said the state's seafood industry is struggling to combat two misconceptions: that local fishing has stopped, and that the existing seafood supply is unsafe to eat.

"Anything going on the market is being tested and tested and tested at unprecedented levels," he said. It is safe, he stressed, and some of it, at least for now, is abundant.

Seventy percent of the state's coastline remains open, Smith said, including areas that are home to gators and catfish and, yes, the bug-eyed crawfish. "All those species right now are at 100 percent," he said.

Because a cold winter caused the crawfish crop to get a late start, the stock now is plentiful, said Wendy Waren of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. She expects fresh crawfish to be available through the end of the month and for the tail meat, peeled and packaged, to be on hand through the end of the summer.

Her father-in-law, a crawfish farmer, pulled in 23 sacks the other day, a respectable number for this time of year. Each sack contains about 40 pounds.

It wasn't yet 10 a.m. one day last week at Johnny's Seafood in Berwick and the sun was already stomping down with abusive force. Blankets shaded the crawfish arriving in the back of the boats that pulled up one after another.

Anthony Scully and his two teenage sons, Ryan Aucoin and Raven Paray, tossed 18 sacks like gym bags onto a scale. The weight: 655 pounds. Total day's earnings: $400.

"It's decent," Scully, 47, said. The day before, he brought in 28 sacks, and the day before that, 22 sacks.

Like others who survive off these waters, west of the area that has been closed, he knows his livelihood is only one current change away from devastation, one hard storm away from ruin. "All you can do," he said, "is hope for the best."

No one wants to think of Louisiana without seafood. Locals swear Louisiana seafood is sweeter than anywhere else, that if there were a blind taste test, they'd know immediately whether it came from overseas or "up and down the bayou."

"No, it's not gone," Pat Templet, who owns the dock, said of Louisiana seafood. "It's still here, and we're still eating it. When your locals eat it, you know it's good."

Luciano Saia, a business major who just graduated from Loyola University, sat near a refrigerated trailer up the road from Johnny's, waiting to fill it with crawfish that he would sell on the side of the road.

"We can't get enough right now," he said.

When he and another man parked on a dirt patch off Highway 56 outside Houma and posted a hand-written sign, they sold more than 20 sacks in a few hours. "I wish we would have had a lot more," Saia said. "It wasn't enough."

Before the spill, the owners of Somethin' Else Cafe, Blaine Prestenbach and partner Craig Walker Jr., would boil the creatures only on Fridays, when they would serve them whole. Now, Prestenbach also pulls out the pot during the week and peels them down for meat he can use in other dishes.

Some bigger restaurants say that they have not yet felt a shortage, and that their menus and prices have not changed. But they have the luxury of large freezers that can store months' worth of seafood. Prestenbach and Walker buy their catch fresh, making them more vulnerable to the changing market.

"It could become where Louisiana shrimp and crab are like caviar," Walker said. The shrimp burger, one of the dishes on the menu in which the men take the most pride, "could be something of history."

They accept that they might have to change their menus again. Crawfish season will soon end and hurricane season is getting started.

"This is just the beginning of it," Prestenbach said.

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