st. john

Dining out in a nice restaurant is a treat. I feel blessed to work in an industry where people come to celebrate life’s special occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, retirements, and the like. To be even a small part of people’s lives during those times is an honor, and a responsibility that we never take lightly.

Dining out is a more common occurrence in our family these days. With a daughter off at college, we find ourselves eating dinners out of the home more often. We still dine at home a good bit (my 16-year old son ate an entire chicken pot pie the other night), but we also dine out. It’s my business. 

Both of my kids — the aforementioned human garbage disposal, a junior in high school, and my daughter, a junior in college — have been eating in local, independent restaurants since they were born. 

I grew up in a different era. We rarely ate out. If it was someone’s birthday, my grandmother usually hosted a very formal dinner at her house. 

My grandfather on the other side of the family always wanted to go to a catfish house on his birthday. I loved that because I could order fried shrimp. As much as I loved my grandmother’s leg of lamb, roast beef, fried chicken, and turkey — as a 10-year old boy — I would have traded them all for an order of fried shrimp.

During my youth, fried shrimp sat at the pinnacle of the dining-out food pyramid. Whether we were eating at a local catfish house, one of the two or three local independent restaurants (Captain John’s Seafood House was my go-to), or dining in New Orleans or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — I never even needed to look at the menu — I wanted fried shrimp. Period. End of order, and don’t forget the ketchup.

In the mid-1980s, I began dining in restaurants for business research and development of my restaurant concepts. I spent a five-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s eating almost nothing but fine-dining food. I was set to open, and later had opened, my first restaurant — The Purple Parrot in 1987 — and I was learning all about the fine-dining food scene, and teaching myself how to replicate those dishes. I was eating in fine-dining restaurants all over New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle. Eventually, I began creating my own dishes, but still went back to the well for inspiration. After 10 years of eating like that, I started craving “real” foods, and would search out a good fried chicken joint, and think nothing of driving 90 minutes to have lunch.

Today, approaching my 30th year as an owner and my 38th as a restaurant guy, I feel I have come full circle. I now eat for pleasure and the communal act of sharing a meal with someone — my wife, kids, friends, co-workers. I just like dining with other people and sharing that experience.

These days, if it’s my son and me, we eat steak. Period. No question. And we’ll drive for a great steak. He is the cleanest eater in the family, but he loves steak. My wife and I are diverse eaters. She and I have been doing this for 30 years. We’ve eaten all over the world together. My 20-year old daughter is a mama’s girl and has developed her mother’s love for Mexican cuisine, but was also eating at Commander’s Palace in a high chair at six-months old and perfectly behaved, so she’s a pro wherever we go.

We prefer to all eat together whenever we are all together, though lately our number has dwindled to three. My wife and I eat lunch together almost every day, and have for decades. I consider myself a blessed man for having been able to pull that off for three decades.

When it comes to my dining out these days, it just depends on the circumstance. 

In New Orleans, I keep a list of “need-to-get-tos” and a review of places I have been, along with lists of restaurants that I recommend when asked (and I’m asked a lot).

Recently, Wyatt Waters and I were down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at a book signing. We had been listening to a John Lennon biography on audiobooks as we tour around the state with this our newest coffee table cookbook. I developed a deep desire for fried shrimp. No matter what any of the book buyers suggested, or restaurants they recommended, I was going to eat fried shrimp.

People expect someone who owns a fine-dining restaurant to eat that type food all of the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. People at the book signing asked, “Where are y’all going to eat?” 

I responded, “Who has the best fried shrimp on the Coast?” They often would try to steer me towards fresh fish options. “We sell over eight tons of fresh fin fish every year at our restaurants. I can get four to five fresh Gulf varieties that were swimming in the Gulf last night year-round.” The same goes for oysters and crab meat. I’m blessed that it’s all available to me on a daily basis. “I just want some fried shrimp.”

Once Waters and I left the bookstore, I drove west one block and stopped at a restaurant called Bacchus. We walked into the restaurant, were seated at the bar, and the owner recognized us and walked over to greet us and inform us of the nightly features. “Do you have fried shrimp?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I don’t even need to see a menu. I would like fried shrimp.” 

His fried shrimp were excellent. They were huge and they were breaded — not battered. I have never cared for battered seafood, whether I’m in England or an American fast food place, batter tends to hold grease on the inside. 

I felt like a kid again. 

Want to know why I wanted fried shrimp? Because fried shrimp are good.

It was a go-to as a kid, and it was my go-to last night. 

Fried Shrimp 

2 lbs Shrimp, large, peeled and de-veined

1 Egg

2 cups whole milk 

2 cups Corn flour

1 Tbl Salt

2 Tbl Creole Seasoning 

Peanut Oil for frying 

Heat oil to 340 degrees in a large cast iron skillet. Beat together the milk and egg. Combine corn flour, salt and Creole seasoning. Dip shrimp into egg wash mixture and dredge corn-flour mix. Drop, one at a time, into the hot oil and fry until golden, about six to seven minutes. Remove and drain.

NOTE: When frying, it is crucial to maintain the oil temperature. Overloading the oil will cause a severe drop in temperature causing whatever you are frying, and the product will absorb more oil, resulting in a greasy, soggy final product. Keep a thermometer in the oil at all times so that you can monitor the temperature. Also, only bread as much as you can fry at one time. Pre-breading can cause clumps, which will fall off during the frying process. A good method for frying in batches is to preheat your oven to “warm” (200 degrees). Place paper towels or a cooling rack on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Place the already fried objects in the oven, leaving the oven door cracked slightly to prevent steaming.

Cocktail Sauce

1 1/2 cups Ketchup

3 Tbl Fresh lemon juice

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 /4 cup Horseradish, prepared

1 /2 tsp Black pepper, fresh ground

1 1 /2 tsp Salt

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate two hours before serving. Yield: two cups

Tartar Sauce

1 1 /2 cups Mayonnaise

1 /4 cup sweet pickle relish

1 Tbl Yellow mustard

2 Tbl Capers, chopped

2 Tbl  Green olives, chopped

1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper

1 1 /2 tsp Garlic, fresh minced

1 /2 tsp Garlic salt

1 1 /2 tsp Parsley

1 Tbl Lemon juice, freshly squeezed 

Combine ingredients, mix well, refrigerate four to six hours before serving. Yield: 2 1 /2 cups.

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