THE CAJUN WAY
As one might suspect of a restaurant named Grand Isle, the focus of the Convention Center Boulevard eatery is Louisiana seafood, with particular attention on the raw bar, “down-home favorites” and “the coldest beer in town.”
But Grand Isle also offers flavors and techniques right out of a French Cajun boucherie — locally sourced pork, hog’s-head cheese and sausage.
A recent visit to Grand Isle started with a few lovely house cocktails courtesy of chief mixologist Eric Dahm, a San Francisco native and recent New Orleans import. Dahm moved here on a whim, after his own Bay Area restaurant ran him ragged.
“I turned 30, I wasn’t dating anyone, my cat died and I was thinking ... something’s gotta change,” he said. After being lured to the Big Easy by a childhood friend — now a professor at Loyola — Dahm trotted out his dedication to craft cocktails at Grand Isle and subsequently reinvigorated its bar program.
Notable cocktails on Grand Isle’s list include the Apéritini (an aperitif similar to a Vesper, with gin, Lillet, Cointreau and bitters), a Hemingway-style daiquiri called the “I-10” and the “Spa Collins,” a refreshing concoction involving Hendrick’s gin, citrus and a cool undercurrent of cucumber.
As for the menu, New Orleans native Chef Mark Falgoust has been keen to bring his Cajun roots to the table. The chef has family in Bayou Pigeon and Pierre Part.
An avid hunter and fisherman (he’s been known to bring in freshly caught gar to cook up for the staff), the chef infuses the menu at Grand Isle with a number of finely executed meat dishes.
Consider the excellent hog’s-head cheese, a Cajun staple, courtesy of fresh, locally sourced pork.
“I have a guy who hooks me up with pigs,” said Falgoust, who was a sous-chef at Stella! before coming to Grand Isle.
“I wouldn’t exactly call him a ‘purveyor’ so to speak. But it’s probably the best, freshest pork you can find. You go and see it alive, you know? I’ll bring some cooks out there (to Cajun country), and we’ll do a boucherie maybe once or twice a year. Not too many cooks know how to take an animal from the live state and process and cook the entire thing all the way through. It’s a cool education that I like to offer our cooks, ’cause you’re not going to learn that in culinary school, I guarantee.”
The head-cheese is paired well on the restaurant’s charcuterie plate ($14) — served on a pig-shaped cutting board fashioned by the restaurant’s general manager — which also included a country terrine, smoked sausage, fennel salami (much like a traditional French saucisson), coppa (cured pork loin), pepper jelly and house mustard.
Another starter that one might dismiss but definitely deserves attention is the house’s crispy fried onion rings, a generous plate piled high for $6, as well as a plate of baked Louisiana oysters ($11 per half dozen) with various toppings, a favorite being the “Grand Oysters,” which features tasso, jalapenos and havarti cheese.
And then, of course, is the gumbo ($7.95 for a cup, $9.95 a bowl), a chicken-based version served, in true Cajun fashion, with a dollop of creamy potato salad.
“It gives it a good flavor, but it’s just one of those things that some people think is weird, and other people swear that’s how gumbo is supposed to be. We use chicken grease from our chicken stock to make our roux, so it has a really intense chicken flavor.”
The gumbo is worth a try, but it’s Falgoust’s exceptional turtle soup that truly shines, and could easily go toe-to-toe with any turtle soup in New Orleans, including the 100-year-old Grand Dame restaurants.
“We use 100 percent turtle meat, no additives or any type of fillers. Most places in the city, you’ll be hard pressed to find an all-turtle soup; they always cut it with other types of meat, because it has a strong taste and it costs a lot. But we use all turtle, which I think really makes ours stand out.”
Other simple but tasty dishes included a bowl of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with San Marzano tomatoes and a fragrant broth ($10.95) and a satisfying plate of tomato and Gulf shrimp linguini ($22, or $14 for a small plate).
The most surprisingly wonderful dish of the evening, however, was the chef’s smoked, fried oysters ($10.50 per half dozen). Cold-smoked then breaded and fried, the complex, delicate flavors and textures are truly a standout at Grand Isle — reminiscent of the smoked, fried soft shell crab at Clancy’s — and should absolutely not be missed.
Rounding out our meal was a number of quality desserts, including lemon icebox pie, pecan pie, carrot cake, bread pudding and a stellar cheesecake fashioned with goat cheese.
Ultimately, Chef Falgoust isn’t daunted that his cuisine is simple and familiar; he’s concerned only with quality.
“No bells, no whistles, no big white chef toques,” he said. “Just good food.”