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A Seafood Penance of Plenty

By Ian McNulty


New Orleans, LA –
It's impossible to live in New Orleans without noticing the surge in local seafood consumption this time of year. Lent sets the pace, when more people embrace the Catholic custom of meatless Fridays.

You can see the result as local seafood markets swell with customers this time of year, though another sure indication is the rise of the fried seafood platter. Piled with variety, and practically by definition now served in massive portions, it's hardly a penance, but rather a dish that satisfies custom and answers some serious mealtime indulgence.

There's no lack of places to get them, though some have attained legendary status. Jack Dempsey's Restaurant in the Bywater serves a platter built for two but really large enough to serve five. A towering fried seafood platter is the de facto marketing mascot of Deanie's Seafood Restaurant, and around the corner in Bucktown at II Tony's seafood platters are done fried, saut ed, grilled or blackened. Chef Frank Brigtsen even elevated the seafood platter to fine-dining standards at his Brigtsen's Restaurant, where each item gets its own distinct preparation.

But for pure Lenten lunchtime bustle, there's nothing quite like the city's casual lunch joints, the places where daily specials invariably run toward fried seafood on Fridays.

Take, for instance, P&G Restaurant & Bar, downtown on Baronne Street. This is a diner cut from the old school cloth, a downtown convenience eatery aimed squarely at blue collar workers and office staff. But this is a New Orleans downtown diner, and to drop in on a Friday at this time of year is experience positive pandemonium.

The trading floor of a stock exchange is probably more lively than the back-and-forth, shout-point-and-wave ordering scenario at P&G. But no stock exchange I've ever heard of has the added chaos factor of burly men in Greek sailor caps periodically bursting into the room with dented metal pans of oysters still hot with fryer oil.

That job usually falls to proprietors Petros Bilalis and Gus Kouniarian, two men who look like they could be brothers but in fact have only spent the last 30-odd years working together at a succession of similar diners. They opened P&G in 1993, using the initials of Petros and Gus to name the restaurant.

Today, they oversee what looks like a circus juggling act of fried seafood, plate lunches, and heavily buttered French bread. If you walk in and notice a neat, organized line of lunch customers, these people are most likely newcomers to P&G and soon will be brusquely advised to break up the line, belly up to the counter and order from one of the many employees swarming behind it.

"There is no line!" someone may bellow to no one in particular in the heat of the lunch rush. Rather, people wave money, point fingers and place orders. It can appear helter skelter, with people fairly ricocheting off each other's elbows and shoes as they move fast in the small space. Seafood comes out of the kitchen in great batches and then roughly shoveled onto plates or picked through by hand and pressed into lengths of French bread. Random lemon slices and stray shrimp tumble to the floor.

It's all enough to give a workplace ergonomics engineer an aneurism. To a New Orleanian, though, it just looks like a Friday Lenten lunch.

Brigsten's Restaurant
723 Dante St., New Orleans, 504-861-7610

Deanie's Seafood Restaurant
1713 Lake Ave., Metairie, 504-831-4141

Jack Dempsey's Restaurant
738 Poland Ave., New Orleans, 504-943-9914

P & G Restaurant & Bar
345 Baronne St., New Orleans, 504-525-9678

II Tony's
105 Metairie Hammond Hwy., Metairie, 504-831-0999

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