Grand Isle Restaurant
575 Convention Center Blvd
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating: ***/*****
Grand Isle opened a few years ago as part of the development of the Fulton Place pedestrian mall near Harrah's Casino. It seems primarily geared to out-of-towners, which is not a bad bet given its location. But for an easy-going, casual restaurant with better-than-casual-restaurant food and a really attractive setting Grand Isle has a lot to offer locals too, provided they don't mind paying a little more for the real estate.
The dining room at Grand Isle brings to mind the kind of place you'd expect to find near an upscale marina or a beach resort. It's bright, open and casual, with beautiful cypress wood lining the walls, vintage photos of fishermen and Louisiana scenes and lots of big windows looking out to the brick-lined walks of Fulton Place. The focal point of the restaurant is the long, marble-topped bar, which ends with a big round oyster bar with a shucker on duty.
The place has a professional feel that skews a little more toward the corporate chain restaurant training book than your typical neighborhood restaurant. Again, this is probably a safe bet given the number of out-of-towners coming through the area. The staff must have to do a lot of explaining about New Orleans and Louisiana specialties on the menu. Once they catch on that you're local, however, everything lightens up a good bit and the script goes by the wayside.
The best way to start here is spelled out in neon letters over the bar: oysters. You can get them raw or broiled with a variety of toppings. Of these, I like the "grand oysters" with havarti, tasso and jalapeno the best, though a sampler of three varieties is a fun way to share them all. The smoked fried oysters are a little more unusual but worth a try for that waft of smokiness they hide underneath their crispy cornmeal batter shells. From here, the appetizers run the gamut from tuna tartar - raw, chopped and molded into a cylinder - to basic onion rings.
It seems like half the tables in this place order fried seafood platters, mounded up with fries and slaw. But you can get those dishes at lots of places. The way to get the best meal from Grand Isle is to look for more distinctive entrees. I think my favorite is the baked fish (swordfish on my most recent visit), slathered with a spicy, Asian-style chili butter sauce. I opted for the addition of crabmeat on top, which upped the price considerably but didn't add enough to the dish to justify it really. The crab lumps were of middling size and more wobbly than the freshest product should be. The chili butter sauce is all this fish really needs, it turns out. Another favorite here is the tuna, a thick steak that's cold-smoked first and then grilled. That's a one-two punch preparation that really delivers a memorably robust flavor.
You might assume at a place as seafood-themed as Grand Isle that the non-seafood dishes are afterthoughts, but in a happy surprise this isn't the case here. The smoked brisket is probably the best example, built into a tower of smoky, full-flavored beef over Lyonnaise potatoes and smothered green beans.
The house salad is pretty straightforward, and you can make a meal of it with some fried shrimp on top. My problem though: the plate it's served on is too small, making it hard to avoid scattering a good bit of the salad around the table as you try to eat it.
On the po-boy list there are the usual fried seafood varieties, which are nothing special, but also a few unique creations that really stand out. First and foremost is the shrimp Caminada po-boy, with grilled shrimp dressed with a spicy citrus butter, slaw and herbs. There's also a duck debris po-boy with its meat cooked down into strands like a roast beef po-boy. Be aware that it proves just as messy.
The dessert to get here is the ginger cake covered in chocolate and topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Cold beer is the typical accompaniment for oysters and boiled seafood and Grand Isle's bar makes sure its drafts are really cold, pouring them from ice-encased taps. The wine list is decent, and while it's surely much better than the neighborhood restaurants this place emulates it is also a good bit more expensive. There is a lengthy list of specialty cocktails, which are mostly the cocktails you already know with seaside and nautical themed names.
A couple should expect to spend at least $100 here if they order courses and partake in any drinks. Even just a po-boy and a beer will run you north of $20. This puts Grand Isle in a price range with much more ambitious and charismatic restaurants, but calculate a certain price bump for the location and the overall ambiance and the premium you pay here is at least understandable.
Grand Isle is a something-for-everyone kind of place but if you focus in on the real Louisiana specialties and the kitchen's more original ideas (see the smoked fried oysters or that chile baked fish) you can really get a distinctive meal. The bar is a first rate perch for boiled seafood, a plate or oysters and a beer. Overall, this is a very safe place for a dose of Louisiana flavor without venturing very far from the heart of downtown's attractions.