- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Gulf Seafood Trail hopes to hook diners on seafood.

The trail takes in 52 restaurants that dot the state along the Gulf Coast naturally but also swims upstream to include eateries in Jackson, Vicksburg, Southaven and more.

The Mississippi Gulf Seafood Trail was established with BP tourism grant money to promote Gulf Coast restaurants and the Gulf seafood they serve, said Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association.

Through the Gulfport ad agency, The Focus Group, a multiple award-winning media campaign (print, social media, some electronic) drove the message home to Gulf Coast customers and tourists coming in.

“Response was overwhelming,” Cashion said of a Facebook survey that followed the program. “Customers loved the concept of being able to have a one-stop-shop place to go to find Gulf seafood.”

Even though the grant money ran out, the restaurant association wanted to expand the trail statewide to promote Gulf seafood and participating member restaurants statewide.

The Mississippi Gulf Seafood Trail includes restaurants committed to serving wild-caught Gulf seafood from now through the end of the year. Parameters are broad because of supply and demand and cost issues, Cashion said, and restaurants have latitude to change menu items and run specials.

“The only requirement is that they have at least one item on their menu at all times that emanates from the Gulf of Mexico. And most of them are doing much more than that,” he said.

The trail’s interactive website links to restaurants’ menus and Facebook pages; the trail’s Facebook page has 25,000 likes and plated seafood pics that can set mouths watering.

“We’re just trying to, no pun intended, cast a broad net” to engage as many folks as possible through social media, Cashion said.

Restaurants engage them through snack bars and dinner plates, and the trail hooks up seafood fans with the spots to dive right in.

At Islander Seafood and Oyster House in Jackson, executive chef Jessica Furches’ Smoky Citrus Gulf Oyster and Gulf Shrimp Kabob freshened up a summer appetite like a sea breeze. Threaded with red onion and fresh pineapple chunks, shrimp and oysters basked in the flavors of smoky barbecue sauce, orange marmalade and horseradish. The result was a teasing mix of smoky and sweet, with the slightest heat.

Islander owner Chris Jacobs said, “You can tell the difference between Gulf shrimp and any other shrimp in the world. You can take a bite out of it and know it’s Gulf shrimp. It is something to brag about.

“When you’re not taking any shortcuts and doing everything right, you want people to know about it.”

Furches relishes Gulf seafood’s versatility.

“You can do anything with it. Grill it, soups, pasta … salads. I do everything with it,” he said.

Po’ boys and fish tacos are best sellers; Sunday brunch’s savory Shrimp Boil Cheesecake gains interest.

Jacobs praised the Gulf seafood’s flavor.

“You can get it same day or very next morning and have it fresh off the boat. Anything from all the fin fish, to oysters and blue crab and shrimp - take advantage of all of it, being right here so close to the coast,” he said.

With a concept designed around Gulf seafood, Jacobs said, “We want people to feel like we’re saving them a three-hour drive just to get there.”

Jacobs and Furches shared a few tips for cooking Gulf seafood. Sear it in a hot skillet. Cook the rounder side of a fish fillet down first, and don’t pull off the grill or attempt to flip until it comes off without sticking.

“If it’s starting to stick and pull some of the meat away, leave it on. It’s not burning,” Jacobs said.

Flip once. Don’t cook it too long. If using skewers, soak them in water 30 minutes before using to keep them from burning on the grill and make it easier for the food to slide right off for dining.

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Find the Mississippi Gulf Seafood Trail

- Website: http://www.mississippiseafoodtrail.com

- Facebook: Mississippi Gulf Seafood Trail

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More on Mississippi seafood

Friday’s 6th annual Mississippi Seafood Cook-off showcases 10 of the state’s talented chefs competing for the title of king or queen of Mississippi seafood and the chance to represent Mississippi in the Great American Seafood Cook-off Aug. 8 in New Orleans.

The cook-off, emceed by Chef Derek Emerson of Jackson (Walker’s Drive-in, Local 463, Caet Wine Bar), will be held 4 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Friday at the Slavonian Lodge in Biloxi. Tickets are $15 for one, $28 for two at http://www.msseafood.com.

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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