ROBERT ST. JOHN: Among Gulf Coast classics, stuffed flounder rates highest

ROBERT ST. JOHN

ROBERT ST. JOHN

There are several job titles that are listed in my bio – chef, restaurateur, columnist, writer, travel writer, food writer, businessman, blah, blah, blah. When one sifts through the rhetoric and boils it down, I am a professional eater.

Food, restaurants and the food business are my hobbies. I get paid to write. Food is my passion. I eat out for many reasons: Enjoyment, entertainment, research and development, consulting, and various other things.

There are even sub categories to my eating. When I am eating for entertainment, I can dine for research. I can dine for comfort and I even dine for nostalgia. Every meal has a purpose.

I don’t dine at Galitoire’s In New Orleans to discover the newest trends in the culinary world. Nothing served at Galitoire’s could ever be considered cutting-edge cuisine. That’s OK. The owners of the always-packed old-line New Orleans institution don’t get caught up in the trend-of-the-moment. Galitoire’s is about history, tradition and carrying out a 109-year culinary legacy. They do it in style and they do it well.

New Orleans has several old-line culinary institutions that tell the story of another day and another time. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has a rich and storied restaurant history, too. But several category five hurricanes have done their best to wash that history off the map.

My youth was filled with trips to the Coast where we dined in such establishments as Baricev’s, The Broadwater, Angelo’s, The White Pillars and The Friendship House. Re-routed interstates, changing lifestyles, incoming casinos or Mother Nature destroyed all of those old-line Coast institutions and washed them away leaving nothing but faded linen postcards and fond memories.

Many restaurants can survive a flood – as New Orleans has proven – but 115 mph winds and a 30-foot storm surge will win out every time.

The Coast does have a lone survivor. It is an institution that took everything Camille had to give and stood tall. It weathered the discount-buffet/free-cocktail onslaught of the casinos, and the changing dining habits of the area’s residents. Ironically, the casinos might actually be the reason the 277-year old building is still standing. Mary Mahoney’s, though it took on six feet of water, might have been saved from Katrina’s devastating winds by being located in the shadow of two massive casino hotels.

Mary Mahoney’s is the culinary history of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in one building. If I want my children to know what fine dining on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was like when I was a kid, Mary Mahoney’s is the answer.

Bobby Mahoney is still at the helm of this Biloxi institution and he does a fine job. The servers and back waiters are dressed in the classic style and the dining room buzzes with green or white jacketed staff. The seafood is fresh, the history is storied, but what I love most is the atmosphere and ambiance. The “feel” of Mary Mahoney’s is the feeling I had when I first sat in Baricev’s with my grandfather and ate the first – of what would turn out to be tens of thousands of – raw oysters that I would eat over the course of my life.

A friend and I were having a passionate discussion the other day. It was about food. The question was posed, “What is the quintessential Mississippi Gulf Coast dish?”

That one was easy for me – stuffed flounder. To me, that is the classic dish. Some night say fried crab claws, but those were first served in Mobile. New Orleans would trump the Coast on oysters, boiled shrimp are served everywhere, seafood au gratin is an East Coast staple, I don’t ever remember crab cakes being served in a Coast restaurant in the 1960s, they are Maryland’s claim to fame anyway. Massachusetts gets lobster, South Florida gets crab claws, New Orleans gets remoulade-based dishes, Louisiana gets crawfish, and every one gets fried shrimp.

To me, stuffed flounder is the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s premiere dish and Mary Mahoney’s is the gold standard.

A perfect stuffed flounder should still have the skin on and the bones intact. There should be a pocket cut lengthwise into the flounder – down to the rib bones – in which a crabmeat dressing is stuffed. It is then baked and typically finished with a lemon-butter sauce.

That, my friends, is old-line Mississippi Gulf Seafood at its finest. And, again, no one does it better than Mary Mahoney’s.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.