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In the Kitchen: Gulf Coast bounty

New Orleans' Grand Isle brings Dondis back to the bayou

Chef Joel Dondis strives to keep Grand Isle's food
    straightforward and honest. - Photo courtesy of Grand Isle
By Joan M. Lang
February 01, 2008

Chef Joel Dondis grew up in Calcasieu Parish, in Lake Charles, La., surrounded by water and steeped in the unique culture of the Gulf Coast bayous. Even after attending cooking school and working overseas, Dondis still returned to his hometown roots.

"I'm a bayou boy from way back," he says. "Contraband Bayou snaked through the back of my dad's property, and behind the tennis club where I had my first job in the kitchen, picking turtle meat for turtle soup. We were always in and around the water, and I grew up with seafood."

Over the years, Dondis has established a folder full of recipes, representing what he considered all the best examples of South Louisiana food, from oysters Rockefeller to gumbo. He attended the Culinary Institute of America, and then traveled and worked in Europe, returning to New Orleans to work for the Brennan family and then at Emeril's. The recipe folder grew. He founded a catering company in 2000, then a casual French-influenced restaurant called La Petite Grocery in 2004 and the dessert boutique Sucre in April 2007.

Last summer he dusted off the bulging folder and opened Grand Isle, a seafood restaurant in the Harrah's Fulton Street development in downtown New Orleans, coming full circle back to the bayous. Inspired by the famed fishing village of the same name, Grand Isle is all about the cultural and culinary traditions of Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

Dondis reproduced old photographs by Fonville Winans, who studied the daily lives of Louisiana's oyster farmers, shrimpers and fisherman in the 1930s. The photos set an evocative stage for a rustic dining room that also incorporates weathered pecky cypress with mosaic tiles and marble. The seafood-centric menu celebrates the bounty of the Gulf Coast: oysters, crab, shrimp, crawfish, trout, redfish and amberjack.

"I wanted the food to be straightforward and honest, not fancy with five different ingredients on top of it," says Dondis. "We have a fairly large menu, 
but only two of the seafood products are non-local: calamari 
and lobster."

Over the years, Dondis has cultivated close relationships with like-minded local purveyors, including P&J Oyster Co., New Orleans Fish House and Harlon's LA Fish.

"I worked with New Orleans Fish House at Emeril's, when they were just getting started," he says. "That counts for a lot."

So does his menuing strategy, which includes three to five daily fresh fish specials that account for up to 40 percent of sales at any given time: Seafood accounts for 80 to 90 percent of total sales. This allows him to buy - and move - whatever his purveyors offer him, as long as it's from the western Gulf.

"I'm not just going for redfish," he says. He'll take tripletail, black drum and sheepshead, absolutely fresh and in small enough quantities that he can sell quickly.

"Strange, but it's not easy to get good fresh fish in a restaurant - many places use frozen," says Dondis. "But I'll buy a small quantity of four or five different kinds of fish, maybe 20 or 30 pieces, and be able to sell it. That way I'm not 100 pieces deep into one variety of fish and have to worry about selling it all.

"Because what happens when you have to wait another day to sell your fish?" he adds rhetorically. "It's not going to be as fresh, and people aren't going to like it."

Not only is that good for Dondis and his purveyors, but it's also good for customers. "If you buy fresh fish and prepare it with care, customers will like it," he says. "People who have an issue with fish got a bad piece of it along the way - it wasn't fresh or it wasn't prepared correctly."

Dondis and his customers are keenly aware of the pressures commercial fishing puts on the Gulf Coast ecosystem. "They know there's only so much to go around, so they're willing to try new varieties," he says. "We work real hard on our prep so we treat the fish right and customers have a good experience."

Hearty amberjack, for instance, can be grilled, while the more delicate sheepshead is sautéed. And customers have a choice of sauces, including lemon beurre blanc, Creole meunière, hollandaise and roasted shrimp, which is made from the shells in the classic French manner, as well as an optional topping of crabmeat, for true Louisiana style.

As important as the fresh fish of the day program is, however, Grand Isle is also gaining a reputation for some of its signature dishes, including three different kinds of baked oysters, crawfish boiled and Cardinale-style, softshell crabs in season, shrimp with remoulade sauce, potted crab, fried shrimp and oysters and a full complement of raw-bar and cold seafood. There's turtle stew (made with pulled turtle meat and oxtail so it's really hearty) and camp-style seafood gumbo, the kind of thin but flavorful soup-stew that's made with the sportsman's catch up and down the Gulf Coast.

"Gumbo is regional, even within Louisiana," explains Dondis. "I grew up with it kinda thin, made with a light roux and not thick with a lot of garnish. And in Lake Charles, if you make a duck gumbo, that's all it's got in it: duck. If it's seafood, you don't put andouille sausage in it." Grand Isle's is made with shrimp, oysters and crabmeat, plus a mound of flavorful popcorn rice, a local variety of rice that was first grown by his sister-in-law's family.

Dondis thinks Grand Isle may have the legs to support additional locations, perhaps in Mississippi or elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. But right now, he's concentrating on getting all the details right. "We're super focused on ironing out the service, and getting our quality and operations just where they need to be," he says.

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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