There’s a new chef in town, and he’s smokin’.
James Palen, the executive chef of the Sandbar Fish House & Grill located inside the newly-renovated WaterView Casino & Hotel, has joined the ranks of the newest restaurant in Vicksburg.
Hailing from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the 26-year-old is a graduate of San Antonio’s Culinary Institute of America, but guests shouldn’t judge him by his youthfulness. Having worked for culinary legends like Johnny Hernandez and John Folse in Baton Rouge, Palen knows his way around the kitchen. And he knows the stories behind each of his signature dishes.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16, but the highlight of my career so far has been working with Folse. We shot 48 TV episodes, doing eight shows a day, feeding people like Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and even Dick Cheney at his duck hunting camp,” he said. Under Folse’s tutelage, Palen learned the traditional roots of Cajun cooking. “He [Folse] doesn’t just cook something. There’s always a story behind it and a reason for everything that goes into it. It’s about the basic ways and the history behind the seven nations of the Creole,” Palen said.
After the release of Folse’s latest cookbook, the “Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine,” Palen in February moved to Vicksburg. Brand new on the Vicksburg scene, he is working hard to learn the area and understand the market. In creating weekly specials – like grilled salmon with citrus glaze and bacon tomato rice – Palen likes to “push the envelope without breaking too many comfort zones.”
“I like keeping it simple, but still flavorful.” His ultimate goal is to put Mississippi on the culinary map.
Palen’s favorite dish – one he likes to both cook and eat – is his world-class Amaretto Deglazed Trout Amandine. Traditionally, Trout Amandine is fish blackened in a pan and sautéed in butter and garlic. Palen’s version, however, is “Southern style with a little bit of jazz.”
“Here, we take a fresh trout and coat it with blackening seasoning, dust it in flour, sear it and then transfer it to a pan where we top it with a crab cake mixture and put it under the broiler. While that’s going, we take butter, almonds and garlic, which we sauté and deglaze with Amaretto – for a little sweetness – and pour it on top of the fish.”
The result? Sweet and savory. “You get the taste of the fish, plus the aroma of the garlic and the toasted nuts,” Palen said.
Other popular dishes on the Sandbar menu include Creole Crab Cakes, featuring jumbo lump crab with New Orleans white Remoulade, Crab and Shrimp Alfredo, and South Coast Gumbo, a famous Creole soup of shrimp, crawfish, crab, oysters and smoked Andouille sausage made with a dark brown roux. Fried green tomatoes are served with Texas petal sauce or topped with crabmeat cream sauce. From the garden, the WaterView house salad features seasonal mixed greens with red and yellow pear tomatoes, a duo of roasted beets, cucumbers and red onions tossed in Cane Syrup Vinaigrette.
Once a well-known steakhouse, the Sandbar – which re-opened its doors May 26th – still boasts “the best ribeye in town.” The dry aged prime beef steak “dropped” from a Cowboy Cut Chicago ribeye is the best cut of meat, according to Palen. “When they cut the Cowboy chops with the big bones, there’s a 12-ounce section in between that doesn’t have the full fat cap on the outside. It falls out, so they call it a drop.”
Desserts include crème brulée, a decadent double chocolate cheesecake, tiramisu and New Orleans white chocolate bread pudding, a light and airy warm bread pudding made from house batard bread soaked in a creme anglaise, baked with white chocolate chips and served with Shirley’s whiskey sauce and white chocolate ganache.
With a fresh new décor of soothing ocean-like blues and marine life artifacts, the restaurant seats 93 and features the works of Mississippi artists like H.C. Porter and Walter Anderson. Adorning the walls are abstract oil paintings by local florist and artist Geni Fulcher. The dining area features an expansive view of the open kitchen, where guests can watch as their meals are prepared.
Signature cocktails created by manager Candace Werginz include the Sandbar Sunrise, the Muddy River Mudslide and Mississippi Iced Tea, a twist on the classic Long Island Iced Tea.
Palen’s hope is to build the Sandbar Fish House & Grill into a premier dining experience.
“My vision is that not only WaterView, but even the Sandbar, will become its own destination. So you think, ‘I really want to go eat at this place,’ then you realize there’s a casino here, too,” he said.
Want to go?
Serving dinner only, Sandbar Fish House & Grill is open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Happy hour is from 5 to 7 p.m., featuring half priced drinks and appetizers.
The restaurant is located in the WaterView Casino & Hotel, 3990 Washington St. For more information, phone (601) 636-5700 or visit waterviewcasino.com/dining.