Throughout its 176 years in business, Antoine’s Restaurant has built a reputation for its superb French-Creole cuisine and impeccable service. The French Quarter restaurant is world-renowned for dishes like Oysters Rockefeller, which was invented in the kitchen at Antoine’s, and Pompano Pontchartrain, a sumptuous crabmeat-topped dish that is one of its most popular.
In fact, Executive Chef Michael Regua says customers come to Antoine’s just for the pompano. A native New Orleanian, Michael started out as a cook at Antoine’s 44 years ago and worked his way up the line.
As executive chef of America’s oldest family-run restaurant, Michael is a keeper of the flame, maintaining the integrity of Antoine’s most beloved dishes while also developing new dishes. We talked with Michael to get the scoop on Antoine’s Pompano Pontchartrain and his tips on preparing the dish at home.
What is the origin of Pompano Pontchartrain here at Antoine’s?
Pompano is a Gulf fish. It’s a fish we serve with skin on. And it’s a very delicate fish. Pompano is, what I would say, in the fish world, not very cheap. But the taste of it is so remarkable. Some people grill it, some people broil it.
I like it on the flat top with a crust on it, and then we put crabmeat on it. We take crabmeat and we sauté it in white wine and butter with seasoning and green onion, and we put that over the pompano, and that is one of our biggest sellers.
I got hooked on pompano a very long time ago when I started working at Antoine’s. As a young kid, I never knew what things were like that. So I started eating it, and it’s like anything else. I acquired a taste for pompano. I think it’s one of the best fish out there. Do I like mahi mahi? Do I like different fish, amberjack, all that? Yes, I do. I like salmon. But I’m still a pompano lover.
What do you love about it?
I love the texture. I love the taste. I love the way you grill it and it flakes off. I love the skin itself, how it crisps up. All those things involved with a pompano are things I really like. And pompano’s not a very thick fish, so it doesn’t take a long time to cook. A lot of people cook pompano with skin down, but that’s the wrong thing to do.
What happens is that once the skin hits heat, it shrivels. So if you cook the skin down, the pompano would flip. So you cook it skin up, and you let it cook that way, then when you turn it, the skin cooks, and crisps the skin up, but it won’t flip the fish, because the first part is already cooked.
The language “Pontchartrain,” in this restaurant, means crabmeat. It can be a drum Pontchartrain or soft-shell Pontchartrain. The word “Pontchartrain” at Antoine’s means “crabmeat.” And that started off a very long time ago. And that’s the origin of that.
How long has this dish been on the menu?
I’ve been here for 44 years, and it was here when I got here—before I got here—so it’s been here for a very long time. And that’s one of my challenges, is that Antoine’s has a lot of things that have been on the menu since I got here, so my job is to keep things the way it was 45 to 50 years ago, so that somebody comes in and says, “That’s the way I remember it.”
That’s where my job gets a little hard. We use the same exact recipes. I will taste 10 things a day. One of everything, just to taste, even the Pompano Pontchartrain, just to make sure it’s done the way we want it done.
What tips do you have for people who will be making this at home?
You know, pompano is not a very hard dish to do at home. If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet, use something that’s Teflon or nonstick, with very little fat on the bottom of it. Season the fish, both sides, skin and belly, and cook it with the belly down, skin up.
And pompano doesn’t need a heavy fire. Just like you preheat an oven, you preheat the skillet. The simple thing I do at home—and you have to watch how you do it—is wet my finger a little bit and sprinkle the pan. It will sizzle. Too much water will come at you. But if it sizzles, it means that the pan is hot enough. Then put your pompano with the skin up, and watch it. It shouldn’t take more than 4 minutes to cook it that way, 5 minutes maybe, depending on the thickness of it, and then when you turn it over, same way, 4 to 5 minutes.
And pompano’s something that you don’t have to cook ahead of time. It’s only an 8-minute deal, so it’s not like you’re barbecuing. Now you can do your crabmeat earlier. You can sauté your crabmeat, put it in wine, put it in butter, your green onion. Now as far as that, you could add what you want. You can add thyme, basil.
We deal with 2-pound pompano. Our perfect plate size is 7 to 9 ounces, skin on, V cut. What I mean by “V cut” is I take the middle bone out. It is the easiest way of doing a pompano, and it’s the safest way, especially for kids. If you slide your hands, and you can feel in the middle if that bone’s still in there, take some tweezers and pull them out or cut more.
Is there a good substitute for pompano?
For me, there is no substitute for pompano. There is no fish that I think will substitute. We do bring another fish in sometimes, but very rarely. People come to this restaurant looking for pompano. . . . Pompano is the fish that carried this restaurant for many years.
What if you were making it at home and you couldn’t get pompano?
I would go to my market and probably buy the fish that is fresh or the fish that I care for that day. I would buy fresh drum or fresh salmon.
- 4 (7- to 8-ounce) pompano fillets*, skin on
- Kosher salt and ground white pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon cottonseed or canola oil
- 6 teaspoons butter
- ½ cup sliced green onion
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- 1½ cups white wine
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 6 ounces jumbo lump crabmeat, picked free of shell
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- French bread, to serve
- Garnish: chopped fresh parsley
- Season pompano with salt and white pepper. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add pompano, skin side up; cook until lightly browned and skin has crisped, 6 to 8 minutes per side.
- Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add green onion and garlic; sauté until onion is softened. Increase heat to medium-high. Add wine and lemon juice; sauté for 2 minutes. Add crabmeat and parsley; sauté for 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Spoon over pompano fillets. Serve with French bread. Garnish with parsley, if desired.