Hooked on the Half Shell
You've gotta try redfish on the half shell," my friend Drew Curren, a chef in Austin and an avid fisherman, told me over the phone one day when I mentioned that SAVEUR was doing a special Texas issue. I knew that redfish, also known as red drum, was a favorite on Southern tables, but the "half shell" part confused me. When he was a teenager, Drew said by way of explanation, he used to tag along with old salts on daylong fishing excursions in the bays and inlets of the Gulf Coast. "For dinner, these guys basically cut off a side of the fish, put it skin side down on the grill without even scaling it, and doused it in butter; by the time they set the table, the fish was done. It's that easy." The "half shell" was simply the fish's crisp, charred, scales-on skin.
I didn't try redfish on the half shell until I paid a visit to Reef, a restaurant in Houston helmed by chef Bryan Caswell, who also happens to know something about fishing in Texas. In his version, a gorgeous, flaky filet is basted with compound butter; the "shell" captures the fish's juices, keeping the flesh moist. It gives fish cooked on the bone a run for its money.
The "half shell" technique is sometimes called "Chitimacha style", presumably after the way the Chitimacha Indians, expert fishermen who once lived in the region's bayous, grilled fish over coals. I've since found that other thick-scaled fish, such as red snapper and wild striped bass, also work fine on the half shell. So, Drew, thanks for the tip; I'm hooked.