Chefs find their favorites in the reel world.
Seafood is a challenge, an ongoing mind-tease for chefs, tapping into their creativity, skills and interest. Its many flavor profiles, from mild and sweet to big and bold, provide a canvas on which to experiment with different sauces, sides and ethnic influences. In return, this vast and varied category demands nothing less than dedication and diligence—in selecting, cooking and menuing.
Hundreds of species are hauled from the world’s waters, a vast array that provides a refreshing departure from the culinary limits of other proteins. But with the seemingly endless choice comes variables such as price fluctuation, availability, immediacy of freshness, moisture content and possible substitutions.
Chefs are more than happy to master the intricacies of fish cookery and from their experience and skill often come a roster of personal favorites, the varieties they’re naturally drawn to time and again. And it’s a double whammy when those happen to be good sellers in the dining room.
SEARCH AND SERVE
Brian Polcyn finds the search for a particular fish is as pleasurable as hearing customers at Five Lakes Grill, Milford, Mich., rave about a special preparation. It took weeks of nagging but the executive chef finally got his Boston fishmonger to find a decent, affordable scallop that was not soaked in brine.
“Soaking in brine preserves scallops, says Polcyn. “But it also saturates the product and robs it of natural sweetness and flavor.’’ When he sampled sea scallops from Georges Bank, off Nantucket, Mass., he found a winner. Now, they’re featured every weekend during the winter in a variety of preparations. “What makes this scallop special is its size,’’ says Polcyn. “They’re about the size of golf balls and a portion fills the plate nicely.’’
Scallops also are a favorite of Christopher Brown, chef-de-cuisine at Five Lakes Grill. His tastes run toward a pan-seared version, with smoked bacon-flavored braised red cabbage, confit of leeks and roasted fingerling potatoes. The entrée, which sells for $26.95, comes with a steep food cost, around 35%.
“It works in our menu mix, price-wise,’’ says Brown. The average 8-ounce portion, about three or four scallops, is usually pan-seared. Poaching or steaming are also recommended to preserve flavor, moisture and texture. Brown eschews grilling, saying it gives scallops a bitter taste.
When Dory Ford cannot locate luvar (a cross between swordfish and halibut, he says), the executive chef of Chez Melange, Redondo Beach, Calif., grills a skinless 6-ounce fillet of sea bass, swordfish or John Dory and pairs it with a timbale of beet quinoa and sautéed pea tendrils. A curry vinaigrette is drizzled over the entrée that sells for $19.95 at the 85-seat restaurant in a beach community south of Los Angeles.
Fish is a favorite of Ford’s because of its variety and affordability. “For a good piece of veal, you pay dearly. I can get the same quality of fish for less.’’
Ford usually orders fish when he dines out. “It’s the perception of freshness,’’ says the British Columbia native. “When I was a kid, I’d catch fish and cook it in foil on the beach for lunch. You can’t get food fresher than that.’’
TO GLAZE OR NOT
Tony Sindaco flits between his favorite seafood like a barfly in Las Vegas. The chef ticks off names such as John Dory, monkfish, turbot and salmon that have dotted his career and biography. What fuels his taste at the moment is whatever the local fishermen and salesmen bring to his kitchen. The season and weather inspire the preparation.
Cool winter temperatures allow Sindaco to offer heavier and richer appetizers and entrées at Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, Fla. A smoked sturgeon appetizer on warm potato galette earns raves. So does Chilean sea bass. The chameleon-like properties of this fish make it a year-round fixture on the menu.
“Whatever you do to it, it takes it,’’ Sindaco he says. He uses a maple syrup-based glaze for one roasted sea bass entrée. The heat plus sugar content crisps the skin. The entrée is paired with a tart-sweet apple-endive salad and parsnip whipped potatoes. The 7-ounce portion sells for $23.
At Mark’s American Cuisine in Houston, chef-owner Mark Cox sells scarlet snapper from Fiji with Madeira sauce for $24.95. Accompaniments include fork-mashed lobster potatoes and fresh broccoli. “Scarlet snapper is the Rolls Royce of fish,’’ says Cox. “It’s so white and flaky, light [and] flavorful, and responds to sautéing.’’
At La Campagne Restaurant in Cherryhill, N.J., Chef-owner John Byrne revisits France in his mind every time skate is offered. “Skate is served all over France, especially in the countryside. But it has a bad image here. People think of it as a slimy eel,’’ says Byrne. A favorite way of serving it is with a citrus-based brown butter sauce. Equally popular with customers is the classic dish, sautéed skate with white truffles and wild mushroom risotto. It sells for $26.50. Getting his customers to venture beyond their beloved salmon to try skate wasn’t easy. “We handed out lots of samples,’’ says Byrne.
A penchant for seafood and rustic Mediterranean cooking show up in the cuisine of Tobias Lawry, executive chef and partner in Restaurant 821, Wilmington, Del. Dishes are passed, family-style. Breads and entrées are cooked in a brick oven and baskets of flat breads arrive before the menu. Hefty appetizers centered on seafood include oven-roasted clams, a Maine lobster martini cocktail and scallops on a creamy pancetta cake.
Italian overtones in spicing and conviviality go back to Lawry’s teen years when he worked in a family-owned Italian restaurant in Camden, Mass. “Cooking came from the heart,’’ he says. So does his casual presentation. A popular entrée is roasted monkfish with sweet onion creamed spinach and wild mushroom raviolis. A pair of coin-sized ravioli, filled with minced chanterelles and shiitakes and seasoned with thyme and cinnamon, lean against the 6-ounce loin, adding height and drama to the presentation. It sells for $25.
Patrons have discovered the versatility, taste range and affordability of fish. Seafood continues to be a hot category, according to Restaurants and Institutions’ 1999 Menu Census. The 1,848 operators surveyed say sales of entrees such as fish kebabs and sea bass are increasing.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, per-capita seafood consumption in 1998 hovered at 14.9 pounds per person. And it’s a foodservice favorite: Of the $49.3 billion spent by consumers on seafood in 1998, $32.4 billion was spent in restaurants, carryout and caterers. That’s up from $31.3 billion in 1997.
Value drives the menu at T.G.I. Friday’s, where the average dinner check, minus beverage, hovers around $12. One of the most popular items in the dining room and bar is fish ’n’ chips. The reason is hardly complicated. “Most people don’t eat it at home because it’s messy,’’ says Tim Soufan, executive director of research and development for the Dallas-based chain. But smart marketing, including color photos on table tents and designated daily specials, is raising demand for trendy choices, such as bourbon-glazed salmon. Customers are willing to try more varieties of fish as long as they are recognizable, simply prepared and of good value.
“Our customer is willing to spend more [for seafood] because he understands seafood costs more than other proteins,’’ Soufan says. “It’s sort of a special occasion thing. You don’t eat it everyday.’’
Seared Sturgeon Medallions with Coriander, Crispy Noodle Pancake and Mustard-Honey Sauce
Catch of the Day
You can talk on and on about the versatility of seafood. But Jonathan Parker, executive chef of The Manhattan Ocean Club, New York City, doesn’t waste words. In his lean and tightly written The Manhattan Ocean Club Seafood Cookbook (1999 Friedman/ Fairfax Publishers), the British-born chef stretches seafood’s envelope with 100 recipes that range from classic to exotic.
The book includes his biography and career highlights, from Devon, England, and West End hotel kitchens in London to a stint in Nice, France, then New York. Under the tutelage of the late Gilbert Le Coze at Le Bernardin, his education in fish soared to graduate school level.
The book centers on 12 seafood species easily available in this country and 10 suggested cooking methods. He’s not against using convenience items. A commercially made cocktail sauce is emboldened with fresh ginger and soy sauce. Japanese breadcrumbs are a favorite breading. He goes for the crunch. Parker borrows from Asia and the Caribbean for ideas. Fresh mint and unsweetened coconut milk flavor a tuna cerviche appetizer. Salmon fillets with a honey-lime sauce find a counterpoint in a slightly bitter caramelized endive.
Citrus-flavored sauces are showcased with classics such ravigote and beurre blanc. Sadly, operational insights for professionals are lacking in this book that’s strong on recipes.
Terrific photos by New Yorker Bill Milne deliver ideas for stunning plate presentations.