Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Weekend Gourmet Hits the Road: An Educational...and Tasty...Gulf Seafood Trip to New Orleans and Biloxi #EatGulfSeafood

Earlier this Spring, Michael and I enjoyed an amazing trip to New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, to learn about delicious Gulf Seafood. Our trip was hosted by the friendly folks at the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition. It was a fantastic experience -- both educational and tasty! Michael and I grew up in the Houston area, less than an hour from the Gulf of Mexico -- so we have a lifelong appreciation for delicious Gulf Seafood. We learned how Gulf Seafood is harvested and marketed, and what the seafood industry means to the Gulf state economies. Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition states include Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Gulf Seafood is definitely great tasting -- but it's also an economic engine that powers the entire Gulf Coast region! The Gulf Coast produces 70% of the nation’s oysters, 69% of domestic shrimp, and is a leading producer of domestic hard and soft-shell blue crabs. As pioneers in many commercial fishing practices, Gulf Coast Seafood’s taste profile is superior because of the nutrient-rich environment found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Our Gulf Seafood experience began when we checked into the Royal Sonesta, our host hotel for the trip. The Royal Sonesta is located in the heart of the French Quarter, which means it's a convenient home base to enjoy all the fun and excitement of the Quarter! The property is gorgeous, and the staff is so friendly. Yes, the party atmosphere of the Quarter is right outside the Royal Sonesta when you want it...but it's also a quiet and relaxing oasis when you're ready to relax. We went to our beautiful guestroom and found chilled bottles of water and pralines waiting for us. Little touches like that are always appreciated -- along with the New Orleans jazz music playing on the radio! We decided to rest and recharge a bit while a rainstorm moved through the area. Then, it was time to get cleaned up for our first official Gulf Seafood event – a private Welcome Dinner with a group of Louisiana Seafood representatives at Luke New Orleans. We met our fellow food bloggers for the trip in the hotel lobby and had a great time visiting with them for a bit. Before we knew it, it was time to leave for dinner.

We’re already huge fans of Louisiana Chef John Besh’s Luke San Antonio, so we knew we were in for a very special dinner! Over the next few hours, we enjoyed a wide variety of Gulf Seafood menu items…and lots of great conversation with our fellow seafood lovers. We started out with gorgeous platters of chilled Louisiana seafood -- including plump Louisiana oysters, boiled shrimp, and lump crab. The seafood was pristinely fresh and sweet...seafood heaven!
The menu for our family-style seafood extravaganza was hand-selected for our group by Luke's Chef, Louisiana native Drake Leonards. The first dishes out of the kitchen were perfectly fried oysters, creamy crawfish bisque, and a rich gumbo that featured a dark roux. The oysters were fried perfectly crisp, and the bisque and gumbo both had a rich depth of flavor. During our meal, we visited with a number of Lousisiana Seafood representatives. I was so impressed with the pride they took in their seafood products. They don't just harvest seafood as a job -- quality Gulf Seafood is their passion!We sampled several entrees from the menu, and all were fabulous. My two favorites were the Black Drum Amandine and BBQ Shrimp with Roasted Jalapeno-Cheese Grits. The fish was crispy outside, juicy and tender inside...and topped with a lemony garlic sauce and roasted almonds. The shrimp and grits featured spicy, creamy cheese grits and sweet jumbo Louisiana Gulf shrimp in a slightly spicy sauce.We were stuffed by then...but we couldn't resist a bite of the desserts that came out of the kitchen! Since the meal was served family-style, it was perfect for having "just a bite" of several sinful desserts. My favorites were the sublime Crème Brulee, Brenden's Bread Pudding, and the Steamed Chocolate with Salted Caramel Ice Cream. The ice cream was the perfect balance of sweet and salty...and I couldn't stop eating it!
After dessert and coffee, we thanked Chef Leonards and his crew for their amazing hospitality -- and food -- and headed back to the Royal Sonesta to get some sleep. We had to be on the shuttle bus to Biloxi very early the next morning, so no late-night French Quarter adventures for us! The drive to Biloxi from New Orleans takes about an hour-and-a-half. Along the way, we detoured off I-10 for a morning visit tp Coast Roast Coffee in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. This artisan coffee company slow roasts coffee beans by hand in small batches. The beans are roasted using an antique Royal coffee roaster. We watched as the owners roasted coffee to be bagged and sold to loyal customers. As you can see, the beans go from their original light color to deep brown during the roasting process.

After our lesson in coffee bean roasting was over, it was time to sample some Coast Roast coffee! I'm not an every day coffee drinker, but the Coast Roast was very smooth and easy to drink. From there, it was on to Biloxi. We drove down a large thoroughfare that had numerous large casinos that were right on the water. My first impression of Biloxi is that it's a perfect spot for a seaside vacation! Our group's first stop in Biloxi was at the Half Shell Oyster House for a delicious seafood brunch with Mississippi Seafood representatives. The restaurant was open and airy, with tons of natural light. It was a perfect location for brunch, which began with bubbly misosas...better than my typical Monday morning routine! The brunch menu was Southern-inspired and featured a combination of both savory and sweet menu items. 

We started with a Fried Green Tomato and Crab Cake, followed by a sample of Oyster Benedict, Lobster Scrambled Eggs, and Shrimp &Grits. We ended our meal on a sweet note with some dessert-like Bananas Foster French Toast. Everything was delicious, but I was especially partial to the crab cake: tangy remoulade, tart and crispy fried green tomato, and sweet crab made for a dynamite flavor combo. Once again, I was impressed with the commitment and pride that the Mississippi Seafood representatives displayed for their product. Seafood feels like a way of life in Biloxi!
After brunch was over, we headed to a local marina for an educational boat ride and tour with The Living Marine Adventure Cruise. During our hour-long cruise, we learned about the shrimping industry and its importance to Biloxi’s economy. It was a gorgeous Spring morning, and the water was calm. During the cruise, our friendly and knowledgeable boat captain dropped a 16-foot motorized trawl into the water. The trawl was then dragged along the bottom of the Mississippi Sound for a good portion of our cruise. During the height of the shrimp season, the trawl's nets would be filled with shrimp when it was hauled back up to the boat. Since our tour was during the early part of shrimp season, our expedition mainly found other sea creatures. 
After we learned about how shrimp are harvested from the water, we visited a nearby shrimp processing facility to find out what happens afterward -- i.e., how the shrimp get from the boat to your local grocery store so you can cook them up! Because it wasn't quite harvest season when we visited, the processing facility wasn't processing any shrimp the day we visited. Instead, employees were doing maintenance on machines to prepare for the upcoming Summer harvest. We learned how the processing plant operates from the time shrimp arrive on the when they're boxed and prepared for shipping throughout the country.
Before we knew it, it was time for a late lunch at Vestige, located in nearby Ocean Springs. This quaint coastal town was a perfect place to spend a relaxing Spring afternoon. Vestige owner and Chef Alex Perry is from Mississippi and left to attend culinary school and start his career. However, when he decided to open a restaurant, he and his wife headed home. Vestige serves seasonal market-driven New American cuisine in a charming old home in historic downtown. If you think that Southern seafood only means fried'd better think again! The upscale three-course seafood lunch menu we enjoyed at Vestige was a feast for the eyes and the palate!
Course 1: Crab Salad, Fennel Puree, Mustard Sauce, Apple Salad, and Shaved Fennel
Course 2: Grilled Shrimp, Sous Vide Pork Belly, Romesco Sauce, and Leek Puree
Course 3: Gulf Grouper, Braised Radish, Orange Confit, Blood Orange Vinaigrette, and Grilled Scallions
The food at Vestige was expertly prepared and as good as any meal I've had in much larger cities like New York or Chicago. If you find yourself in the Biloxi area, Vestige is definitely a must-visit culinary destination! After lunch, we decided to spend an hour or so exploring the cute shops in the vicinity of Vestige. We couldn't resist picking up a few sweet treats at the adorable French Kiss Pastries, then we strolled down to Lovelace Drugs. This drug store has been open in Ocean Springs since 1929 and features an old-school soda fountain. Michael and I couldn’t resist – we had to share a malt! There aren't many soda fountains like this left in the U.S. these days, so it was a fun and unique experience. I love it when we find an unexpected adventure like this during our travels!
After our stroll around historic Ocean Shores, it was time for our group's guided tour of the Biloxi Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum. The museum was established in 1986 to preserve and interpret the maritime history and heritage of Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The original museum was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They decided to rebuild, and the new multi-story museum opened last August. The museum features more than 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. There are exhibits on shrimping, oystering, recreational fishing, wetlands, managing marine resources, wooden boat building, and numerous historic photographs and objects. It was a very informative tour that greatly enhanced my appreciation for the rich history and importance of the seafood industry to this region of the country.Our seafood day in Biloxi was winding down…but we still had one last culinary adventure: seafood dinner and a roundtable discussion with Mississippi Seafood representatives and other Gulf seafood industry representatives. We arrived at Biloxi’s beautiful remodeled White House Hotel and were greeted by this gorgeous view of the Biloxi Gulf shoreline from our upstairs meeting room! After our meeting, we enjoyed cocktails while we waited for our dinner reservation at Cora’s, the White House Hotel's restaurant. We enjoyed a fabulous multi-course seafood dinner, complete with hand-selected wine pairings. When we were seated, a gorgeous Seafood Display Course was placed at each person's seat. It included Gulf Oysters Mignonette, Citrus Champagne Gremolata, Colossal Crab Cocktail, Jumbo Gulf Shrimp Cocktail, and Gulf White Fish Ceviche. The Gulf seafood was so fresh and was hard to decide what to eat first. This seafood platter was served with chilled Vueve Clicquot Yellow Label champagne. Once again, I was in seafood heaven!Highlights of the multi-course dinner included spicy BBQ Shrimp, Blackened Gulf Redfish with Root Vegetable Hash and Grapefruit Beurre Blanc, and Crab-Stuffed Pan-Fried Black Grouper with Parmesan Grits. It was all expertly prepared and served with fabulous wines from around the world. It was a perfect evening: great conversation with fellow food lovers combined with amazing food and wine served in a modern and elegant setting!We were completely stuffed by the time the dessert course arrived, but we somehow managed to eat a bite or two of the creative Strawberry Bread Pudding. It was colorful and gorgeous to look at, and the flavor was moist and delicious. The bread pudding was served with strawberry liquor and a rich cream cheese sauce. 
After dinner, we boarded our shuttle back to New Orleans and made our way to the Royal Sonesta. It had been a whirlwind day in Biloxi, and we quickly fell into our comfy bed. We had a pre-dawn ride to the airport scheduled in a few short hours, so we decided to get some sleep. Before we knew it, the alarm was going off, and it was time to head back to Texas. Just before jumping into our limo for the airport, we bid the Royal Sonesta a fond adieu. I loved how the hotel's exterior looked in the early morning hours! Our Gulf Seafood trip to New Orleans and Biloxi was quite an adventure: educational, fun…and very tasty! I was already a big fan of cooking with Gulf seafood, because its taste and quality are amazing. Now that I know more about how it is harvested and prepared behind the scenes? I appreciate it even more!

If you want to know where to find delicious Gulf Seafood where you live, there just so happens to be a convenient app for that. The Gulf Seafood Finder app is available for both Apple and Android devices. It's very user-friendly and packed with great information. Once you locate Gulf Seafood in your area, you can also find lots of great recipes to preare it on the app!

Disclosure: Our trip to New Orleans and Biloxi was hosted by the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition. They provided Michael and I airfare, accommodations, and all meals during our trip. All opinions are solely mine, and all photographs are copyrighted by Michael K. Garcia. They may not be copied or otherwise used without prior permission.

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