A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction — as well as the invasive species that threaten them.
Michael Chernow doesn’t want people to step inside Seamore’s, his fish-fixated restaurant on the rim of Little Italy in Manhattan, worrying that they’re about to get a heap of science homework dumped onto the table.
“Our goal is not to say: ‘Welcome to Seamore’s School. We’re going to teach you all about sustainable fish,’” Chernow said.
But there is a blackboard. Labeled “Daily Landings,” it covers a wall of the restaurant, operating as a shortcut syllabus for anyone who wants to learn not only what fish are being cooked in the kitchen but also what species have been deliciously available for human consumption for centuries: dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.
“Once they see the board, everybody gets pumped,” Chernow said. “’Wow, look at all these fish, and I’ve never tasted them before.’”
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Over the past decade or so, restaurant diners in this country have become more sophisticated about, and open to, ingredients that used to throw them for a loop: bone marrow, pork belly, sunchokes, orange wine, the ubiquitous kale.
But they’ve remained curiously conservative when it comes to seafood. Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices, dominate one restaurant menu after another.
That is changing, however. A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction — as well as the invasive species that threaten them. And the group has enlisted a special fleet of allies to the cause: the fish themselves.
The way these specialists see it, you can lecture diners about the fate of the oceans, or you can open their minds by stuffing some sea robin into a taco or frying up some crevalle jack for a sandwich and watching their consciousness shift with each bite.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to take the familiar and infuse it with unfamiliar species,” said Vinny Milburn, an owner and fishmonger at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., where you won’t find cod but will encounter lionfish, wild blue catfish and almaco jack. “If we put it in tacos, people will buy it and they’ll say: ‘That’s a great fish. I’ve never heard of it.’”
There are fringe benefits for the chefs, too: When an ingredient is less popular, that usually means that it’s less expensive. And figuring out how to conjure up something irresistible out of, say, a bluefish collar helps break cooks out of culinary ruts.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge,” chef Tom Colicchio said. “What do you do with it? I actually like that: It just forces you to be creative.”
Anyone who has taken a beach vacation knows that clam shacks have been frying up the local catch for ages. At the fancier end of things, elite chefs like Colicchio, Dan Barber, Eric Ripert, Dave Pasternack, David Chang and Kerry Heffernan have made a point of letting people know that bluefin tuna is not the only fish in the sea.
But lately, the idea of casting a wider net has begun spreading to neighborhood spots, diners and national chains like Slapfish, a growing West Coast enterprise.
There are many ways of thinking differently, and locally. At Beachcraft, Colicchio’s new spot in Miami Beach, the menu makes room for wahoo, cobia, queen snapper, Florida clams and Key West shrimp.
Change is not always easy, especially when customers are in vacation-relaxation mode. “It’s hard because you’re in a hotel and people want the usual things,” said Colicchio, who has resisted suggestions from the owners of the hotel, 1 Hotel South Beach, that he make room on the menu for a safe bet like salmon.
At Rose’s Fine Food in Detroit, the traditional Great Lakes fish fry is given its due with the Wild Man Breakfast, which pairs a pan-fried lobe of brook trout with a plate-blanketing blueberry pancake. Lucy de Parry, who owns the diner with a cousin, chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”
Sticking to local traditions makes sense in the kitchen, since Rose’s Fine Food is meant to celebrate what is grown and fished around Michigan. “We grew up eating brook trout and bluegill and all these little lake fish that our grandpa would catch,” she said. “They’re just there. We kind of roll with what we’ve got.”
Still, many people aren’t even aware that many of these fish exist, or that they are thoroughly edible. Shrimp, salmon and canned tuna alone make up 60 percent of the seafood Americans eat, according to the National Fisheries Institute. (Add the next four species on its list — all usual suspects like tilapia and pollock — and you hit 85 percent.)
Even top chefs find themselves making discoveries that alter the way they think about cooking and nature.
At N/naka, in Los Angeles, chef Niki Nakayama dreamed of putting together an explicitly Californian rendition of a Japanese kaiseki menu. “The whole philosophy is about showcasing what is close to us,” she said.
Much of the produce wound up coming from her own garden, but as she scouted around for seafood that embodied the region’s essence, she came up short. “I kept hitting dead ends,” she said.
Eventually Nakayama joined forces with Dock to Dish, a coast-to-coast organization that helps local fishermen come to chefs with uncelebrated species that may not otherwise fetch top price in the marketplace — “things I hadn’t seen before,” as she put it. Suddenly, she had at her fingertips whelk-like turban snails and lingcod and ridgeback shrimp and spiny lobster.
She remembers thinking, as the deliveries began to arrive, “Oh, my God, we just landed a treasure chest.”
Arguably no chef in the United States is more passionate about seafood than Michael Cimarusti, whose flagship restaurant in Los Angeles, Providence, has drawn acclaim for its reverent approach to fish. He is preparing to open Cape Seafood and Provisions, a shop devoted to sustainable seafood. “I feel like the time is right to work on flipping the model,” he said.
He, too, has become a Dock to Dish convert, and in conversation he gets fired up by the challenge of improvising with whatever lands in the kitchen. “I was not necessarily in the market for longspine thornyheads, but that’s what came in one day,” Cimarusti said, citing a Pacific Coast breed that is colloquially known as “idiot fish.” “We used every part of it. We made a bouillabaisse broth.”
Some restaurants go even farther afield to introduce an American audience to species that seem to have been beamed in from other planets.
At Chaya, in downtown Los Angeles, freakish-looking outliers from Japan like beltfish and red cornet are served to your table in a medley of ways, from sashimi to tempura.
Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an eco-friendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.
At Norman’s Cay, an island-themed restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an owner, Ryan Chadwick, hooks customers with a dramatic lure: The place specializes in lionfish, an invasive demon of the sea that is notorious for chowing its way through the Caribbean. Chadwick encountered lionfish in the Bahamas and got an idea.
After removing the venomous spines, the crew at Norman’s Cay applies the simplest of treatments, cooking it on a grill or in hot oil. “We have people calling the restaurant and they’re waiting for the fish to come in,” he said. “Now we have a supply problem.”
Ultimately, the new emphasis on serving different fish is not really about elbowing eaters out of their comfort zone; it’s about pulling them back into it.
Making a delicious dinner from a fish that swims in nearby waters is a way of reconnecting with the region you’re in — and returning to an intimate relationship with the water that goes way back.