PINCH YOURSELF: Delectable spring crawfish at Borgne

Delectable spring crawfish  at Borgne

Brian Landry, executive chef at Borgne, is having a moment.

Locals have known for some time that Landry and his team are up to some wonderfully inventive things with regional seafood, his restaurant’s focus. But when Borgne was recently named a James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant, the young chef remained modest.

“We have a great crew, and it was great to be recognized,” he said. “It keeps us all excited. There’s nothing better than cooking down here, in the deep South and in New Orleans, and having the availability of the seafood that we do. Because every couple of weeks or months, there’s a new product available, and the whole process starts over again.”

And right now, that process is all about one thing: crawfish.

“One of the things that’s exciting is that we can judge the season by the seafood, not just the change in weather. Crawfish season is great, because it signifies that spring is on the way. We’re coming out of the cold, dreary months, the weather’s warming up, everyone’s back in shorts and sunglasses, and the dishes start to get a lot lighter, which is fun. Everybody might have packed on a couple of pounds over the winter, and now we’re off to some crawfish boils.”

Landry and his team are not only showing their appreciation for the humble, beloved mudbug, they’ve challenged themselves to see just how far they can go with the crustacean, and how much they can elevate it beyond pinching the tails and sucking the heads.

This has resulted in a couple of new menu items featuring crawfish, as well as a number of specials as the seasons progress from spring to summer.

“It’s fun for us, because we get to tailor our menu according to what’s available,” Landry said. “With crawfish becoming available now, we throw them on the menu as fast as we can. So we have them on there in a couple of different ways.”

The first of these new dishes is an appetizer of crispy, creamy crawfish croquettas, bite-sized balls of spicy crawfish mixed with cheese, crusted with panko, fried to a golden brown and served with a chipotle remoulade sauce.

“It’s almost like making a crawfish au gratin,” the chef said, “in which we put a little extra cheese, and a little more blonde roux when we make our béchamel. We fold in mascarpone, parmesan and cheddar, add the highly seasoned crawfish, some lemon juice for a little acidity, Worcestershire, and definitely a few dashes of Tabasco to add a nice level of spice.”

Landry drew from a New Orleans favorite — crawfish Monica — as inspiration for a second dish.

“Anybody who’s coming into town for Jazz Fest, or who goes to Jazz Fest, odds are they’re going to taste that crawfish Monica, which is a really delicious, simple pasta dish. Spicy crawfish, pasta and cream. We use a lot of nice ingredients to try and heighten that.”

The result is a brilliant crawfish cavatelli, with brussels sprouts and pioppini mushrooms, which are a member of the shimeji mushroom family known for their peppery flavor.

Said Landry, “We get a lot of earthiness from the pioppini mushrooms. The brussels sprouts add a nice textural component along with a great vegetal flavor. The ricotta cavatelli almost becomes more of a dumpling, rather than a pasta. Then, to make the sauce, we’re using the heads to make a concentrated crawfish stock, then we cream it out with some mascarpone, so you get a really rich crawfish flavor in the dish.”

As for crawfish specials, Landry brims with excitement at the possibilities.

That enthusiasm has resulted in a current special, a seared filet of black grouper over celery root puree, topped with crawfish tails, grilled okra and grape tomatoes, and finished with a crawfish and green garlic sauce.

“Basically we’re making a burre blanc,” said the chef, “but we’re using that reduced crawfish stock to start it, and so you get this really nice, deep crawfish flavor, and we use some citrus butter to make it a little milder and brighter, fold in the crawfish tails, and a little sautéed green garlic. It balances itself out really well.”

Further down the road, Landry plans to unveil his version of a classic crawfish bisque, as well, which will run as an occasional special throughout the spring.

“It’s an old-school crawfish bisque with steamed Cajun country rice,” Landry said. “And we’ll make a farce — a forcemeat, where we grind up the crawfish tails with trinity to make a breadcrumb stuffing —which we use to stuff the heads and drop them right into the bisque. And you can just scoop that stuffing right out of there with your pinky finger, it’s great.”

Landry and his team will continue their creative efforts throughout spring and early summer, pairing crawfish with various local produce as it comes into season.

“As we got toward the end of the season last year we were doing some great squash blossoms stuffed with crawfish mousse. Each week, as it gets warmer and warmer, different opportunities are going to present themselves.”

Eventually, however, crawfish season will come to a close, and the chef’s inventive mudbug mission will sadly close with it.

“At the beginning of June or so, we’ll start to see crawfish go away,” the chef said somewhat wistfully. “But that’s when those beautiful blue crabs and soft-shells come into season,” he continued, his avidity quickly returning. “So we can’t complain!”