The Raw Truth
Ceviche, tartare and carpaccio tell just how adventurous the diner has become.
Not long ago, only the adventuresome slurped an oyster, relished beef tartare or craved raw fish.
Then sushi and ceviche came along, popularized by the seemingly insatiable craze for Asian and Latin American flavors. These days, menus are peppered with carpaccio, tartare and ceviche, words that signal an uncooked state. Raw foods suddenly are hot, drawing diners with the allure of freshness and a sense of the exotic.
“It’s a different mentality from this generation to the last,” says John McLean, executive chef for Levy Restaurants Sports & Entertainment, which offers tuna tartare in a miso cone for luxury-suite ticket holders at Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium. “The previous generation was not exposed to very fresh seafood and was skeptical about anything that wasn’t cooked to death.”
Chefs credit sushi for paving raw food’s current path to popularity, one that is expanding beyond Asian-inspired restaurants. But motivation for the formerly faint of heart to embrace uncooked food can be traced to the desire for a more fulfilling dining experience. Patrons want to eat healthier, chefs say, but they also are demanding interesting and complex flavors.
“People are exposed to more diverse food today than they ever have so they’re not afraid of trying things,” says Robbin Haas, a 30-year culinary veteran who recently opened Baleen in Miami. “We combine tartare and ceviche with exciting flavors and interesting textures. The food is also high in protein and low in fat and that’s appealing to a lot of people as well.”
Ivy Stark, executive chef of Match Uptown New York, says raw seafood is a lunchtime crowd pleaser. “People who eat out a lot are looking for lighter dishes. At lunch, they want something that is not as filling,” she says. “We sell more [raw seafood] at lunch than dinner.”
Consumer acceptance of nearly raw fish is evident on her menu, Stark says. The two best-selling entrées are salmon cooked medium rare and the tuna seared briefly before it is served. Match Downtown, where Stark’s husband, Scott W. Linquist, is executive chef, also is meeting the raw seafood demand. On the menu is Spanish mackerel tartare with preserved lemon, toasted coriander oil, fresh shiso and taro chips ($10) as well as two daily ceviche choices. Recently the selection included tuna tossed with Thai chile, coconut milk and grated ginger served with taro root chips; and scallops tossed with orange, grapefruit and lime juices.
Technically, ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus, usually lime. The acid “cooks” the fish, firming the flesh and turning it opaque. “It doesn’t have to be ‘cooked’ too long and it depends on the fish,” say Stark. “If you use a high-quality diver scallop, tossing it lightly and serving it will prevent the scallops from becoming tough. It will be tender, sweet and retain the beautiful taste enhanced by the citrus.”
Regardless of how long ceviche sits in citrus, variations seem infinite.
At New York’s Chicama, Douglas Rodriguez, the king of nuevo Latino cooking, features eight types of ceviche, from squid and tuna with lemon grass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil to a Peruvian-style variety with scallops, shrimp, octopus and calamari with aji amarillo (a small, spicy yellow Peruvian chile) and saffron.
At Bomboa, a French-Brazilian concept in Boston, a coconut shell is home to ahi tuna ceviche with baby shrimp and hamachi accompanied by radish and papaya salad. Quilty’s in New York serves a ceviche of wild king salmon with sake, lime and green chiles, while the Lennox Room, also in Manhattan, offers sea scallop with tomato, sea salt and chives.
Isla, also in New York, features ceviche in a seafood platter for four. The $50 item includes shrimp with an enchalado sauce, sashimi-grade tuna with yellow pepper paste, squid with salsa verde, scallop with coconut milk and lemon grass, raw oysters with moho mignonette sauce and spider maki with lime and mango.
BEEFING IT UP
A look at the menu at Celestino in Pasadena, Calif., suggests that raw beef is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The restaurant offers it three ways: Piedmontese beef tenderloin tartare ($12.50), beef carpaccio with goose liver paté and celery heart salad ($12) and thinly sliced air-cured beef with arugula and pink grapefruit ($9.50).
Tartare has become a moniker for anything raw, but it originally described raw beef. Believed to have originated in the Baltic provinces of Russia, beef tartare is known for keeping company with capers, chopped parsley and onions. A spin on the traditional can be found at Tobias Lawry’s Restaurant 821 in Wilmington, Del. His tartare pairs diced filet mignon with sweet-and-sour onion salad and horseradish crme fraîche ($4 per person) while Elka Gilmore, at her eponymous restaurant in San Francisco, offers steak tartare with Asian pears and cornichons ($10).
Carpaccio-style beef, however, is the culinary darling of the moment. Its origins are said to trace to Harry’s Bar of Venice, Italy, where the owner, in 1950, named his thinly sliced raw beef dish in honor of painter Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525).
At Simposio Ristorante Italiano in Houston, Alberto Baffoni seasons a plate with salt and pepper, lemon juice and fruity extra virgin olive oil and places thin slices of meat on top so he doesn’t have to flip the beef over. The dish is served with arugula salad, a traditional pairing that brings a peppery bite to the rich meat.
“Everyone is serving carpaccio,” he says. “It’s a food evolution. People are more open minded and it doesn’t have to be something they already know.”
CARPACCIO BY ANY OTHER NAME
Perhaps it is carpaccio’s whimsical cadence that has made it a favored way to describe anything thinly sliced, from portobello mushrooms to venison to lamb. Baffoni serves tuna carpaccio with julienne of celery and fennel; Restaurant 821 offers citrus-cured salmon carpaccio with thyme-grilled flatbread, fennel, parsley and Parmesan; and Eurochow in Los Angeles has halibut carpaccio. At Peacock Alley in New York, Chef Laurent Gras serves black sea bass carpaccio with osetra caviar and lemon juice. Also in New York, La Caravelle presents yellow fin tuna as carpaccio with olive tapenade.
But it may be tartare that’s used the most liberally to describe food that is not meat. Consider Steven Chiappetti’s tomato tartare with green beans, toasted hazelnuts and frisee at Mossant in Chicago.
However, tuna tartare sometimes steals the show from the traditional beef rendition. At the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, N.J., tuna tartare is served with avocado quenelles and lemon oil. Mesa Grill in New York pairs spicy tuna tartare wrapped in roasted yellow peppers on crispy tortillas with hot sauce and cilantro oil.
Haas pays homage to its popularity by offering a “tartare of the day.” Thus, he can offer the freshest available food on a given day. That could mean sea bass, salmon or even ostrich tartare.
“In many ways, it’s like tuna,” Haas says, of the lean meat of the bird. “It virtually has no fat and leaves a clean taste in your mouth. We use soy, ginger, garlic and a hint of [toasted] sesame oil. Your creativity here is unlimited,” he says.
SPICY OR SUBLIME
Faster delivery and better handling methods leading to improved quality have bolstered interest in raw food. As a result, more people are experiencing a true taste of fresh seafood—and getting hooked.
“Ten years ago, you had to cook the fish. Quality alone was not good enough to eat raw,” says Takashi Yagihashi, executive chef at Tribute in suburban Detroit. “But today, not only is the fish better, people expect to find it on the menu.”
Freshness cannot be stressed enough when it comes to serving uncooked seafood, chefs advise. “If you are going to serve raw seafood, you must handle it properly,” says Levy Restaurants’ McLean. He stresses the importance of a reputable fishmonger as well as correct handling. “Eat it as quickly as possible, within 12 hours after you get it. Make sure it gets iced [but not placed directly on the ice] in a drain pan because you don’t want it sitting water.”
Believing that freshness speaks for itself, some chefs maintain that raw seafood needs little enhancement. But others think the quality offers an opportunity to elevate the just-caught flavor.
“The goal is to make the freshness shine but never to cover it up,” says Haas. “You can do a lot and that’s the beauty of it.”
Ahi, Baby Shrimp and Hamachi Ceviche