GW Fins is a new seafood spot offering good flavor and service
On a recent visit to New Orleans, I was comforted by the spirit of the people and the hope for the region in the face of the Katrina aftermath. The city lost half its citizens in the resulting diaspora, but those brave souls who remain are rebuilding lives and businesses.
I'd like to think that these efforts are being fueled in part by simple suppers made in one big communal pot. In that part of the world, it is well known that food—like music—can heal and inspire. A little seafood, a brown roux, and some shellfish broth, and you have the comfort food of the region—gumbo. According to renowned Louisiana Chef John Folse, there are "as many recipes for gumbo as there are people who cook it." And, while not a seemingly refined offering, it sure does taste good. Which brings me to the smoky, dark brown spoonful I enjoyed recently at the newly opened GW Fins—not the one in the French Quarter, but the one on Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte.
Chef/owner Tenney Flynn and partner Gary Wollerman have opened their second location in the spot formerly inhabited by Palomino. The first, on Bienville Street in New Orleans, has been open since 2001, and has won numerous honors (including landing on Esquire magazine's "20 Best New Restaurants" list) for its classic yet inventive seafood dishes. That Flynn and Wollerman have chosen Charlotte bodes well for the restaurant scene here and for those who love fresh seafood. And Chef Tenney is certainly passionate about fish. He goes to great lengths to source the freshest scallops, shrimp, myriad species of fish, oysters and crab, and he has it flown in from all over the globe. As such, the menu changes daily under Executive Chef Jeff Oliveri's careful eye, although not entirely, as we noticed that some offerings were on the menu even after a week between visits. We would discover later that these are popular dishes Tenney has been serving since 2001 at the New Orleans location.
In addition to the excellent gumbo, there are other starters worthy of mention. The lobster dumplings are a signature. In this case, “dumpling” refers to the Asian method of preparation, with delicate lobster morsels gently steamed in a translucent noodle pillow served with tomato, shaved fennel, and lobster butter. Our favorite was the smoked, sizzling oysters. Arranged on a rock salt platter, a dozen raw oysters are shucked and reserved while the shells are smoked to a fiery 500 degrees. The raw oysters are then dropped back into the sizzling shells and served immediately. Between the broiler and the table, the oysters are cooked by the shells, yielding a delightfully oozy yet firm texture with a hint of smoke. Other starters, like the lobster bisque and grilled shrimp, were adequate but unremarkable.
A few salads ($6.75-$9.50) are available between courses, and are imaginative, like the flavorful golden beet salad with blue cheese and red onion, or the bibb and arugula salad—sharp and peppery, sweetened with a tangy kalamata olive vinaigrette and roasted red peppers. Both are welcome flavor departures from the primarily seafood offerings.
The wine list is unpretentious and approachable, listed from top to bottom (progressive, they call it) lightest to heaviest. Also unpretentious is the service. The wait staff was extremely well trained on all of the dishes, with no need for cheat sheets. Responsive to questions and special requests, servers were also able to help explain the flavors and textures of select fish with a low-fi but nifty one-to-five scale, from the lightest in flake and flavor to the most firm and heavy. Our meals were timed well, with a pause between salad and entrée to digest, sip wine, and converse. We were also informed that if we would like to order one of the signature desserts (apple pie or molten chocolate cake), we should allow twenty to thirty minutes, as they are made to order. This treatment, although a nice touch, can be a tough sell—we weren't really thinking about dessert yet, and twenty to thirty minutes later, when we were, it was too late.
Among entrées ($21.50-$36.50), seafood remains the dominant force and doesn't disappoint, with a well-designed array of textures, flavors, and accompaniments. There is a huge center loin cut of snow-white Chilean sea bass floating in an Asian-inspired hot-and-sour broth with enoki mushrooms and bok choy, which is at once beautiful and delightfully prepared. Gorgeous rainbow trout gets a low-country treatment with mushrooms, tasso ham, and oysters. And fresh New Bedford (Mass.) scallops are perfectly grilled over a wood fire, with a richly flavored (although slightly overcooked) mushroom risotto and mushroom butter. These three selections exemplify the variety of different styles of influence and the talented kitchen's ability to execute. As the menu is à la carte, a few family-style sides are available to share, with our hands-down favorite being the Brabant potatoes, large diced potatoes spuds fried to a crisp in smoky bacon fat, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. It makes a perfect partner for all of the dishes we tried.
Only open since mid-September, GW Fins has hit the ground running, in part aided by the experience from preparing proven dishes (carried over from the established New Orleans location) and talented culinary leadership. But culinary prowess is only part of the equation, and if the attendance at Fins—half full on two visits—is any indication, more needs to be done to fill seats. The existing crowd is an eclectic one, dotted with small groups, well-heeled couples, and businessmen. The only standout was the guy with the Ultimate Fighting Championship T-shirt, who could have been persuaded to throw on a sweater. Regardless, the space is comfortable, although the rather drab gray-green color palate is in need of some flash. (More fresh flowers?) Big windows grace the large main dining room, and on the other side of the hostess station there are more tables and a roomy (nonsmoking) bar area. Guests who wish to smoke can step out to a little covered patio when weather permits.
In the long run, what will carry this restaurant is the service, which is excellent from the moment you pick up the phone to make a reservation to the moment you tip the friendly valets, and the quality of the food, which shows the care and attention of its owners and the talents of Executive Chef Jeff Oliveri. Louis Armstrong asked in a song, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” Well, yes, Satchmo, sadly I do. But it's nice to know that I can have a bowl of gumbo at GW Fins that will, for a moment at least, take me right back to the Quarter.
Tenney Flynn and Gary Wollerman are off to a running start with their only location outside New Orleans. The seafood-based menu is mainly outstanding and evokes the French Quarter.
Jon Luther's Favorite Dishes
A classic dark roux-based gumbo with deep flavors and fresh seafood. $6.75
Sizzling Smoked Oysters
A bed of smokin’ hot oysters, cooked on the superheated half shell. $9.50
Grilled New Bedford Scallops
Fresh and creamy, served with mushroom risotto and mushroom butter. $27.50
Chilean Sea Bass
Served in a pool of tangy hot-and-sour broth with bok choy and enoki mushrooms. $38.50