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R&I ? Editorial Archives ? 2004 ? October 15 ? Food

Open Water
Interest in healthful eating, greater availability of seafood and countless preparations present vast opportunities to reel in guests.

The tide for seafood is high, bringing greater availability and more choices to satisfy diners who are hooked.

With its healthful profile and protein-packed attributes, seafood dodges the anti-carbohydrate trend and has benefited from growing interest in sound nutrition over the last few years. Because seafood plays prominently in most ethnic cuisines, fish, shellfish and other ocean fare are rising in prominence.

?We see seafood as our concept of the future,? says Cameron Mitchell, president and CEO of the Columbus, Ohio-based multiconcept company that bears his name. Its steakhouses and Martini Italian Bistro concept are viable operations, but expansion is focused on Mitchell?s Fish Market in cities such as Tampa, Miami and Milwaukee. ?People for years have enjoyed seafood but there is an art to doing it well,? Mitchell says.

At San Francisco?s A 16, Chef-partner Christophe Hille prepares striped bass with a sauce of olive oil, basil, almonds and lemon juice. Chef Kenneth Collins of New York City?s Ida Mae Kitchen-n-Lounge (below) layers poached Maine lobster with grilled grits medallions and crayfish butter.

Seafood has become so popular with diners that even the unlikeliest concepts net benefits. At Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP, Never Ending Popcorn Shrimp increased sales by 15% in the first week of a limited-time promotion started in September. For $7.99, customers are served unlimited deep-fried shrimp nuggets accompanied by french fries and a choice of classic cocktail sauce or spicy dipping sauce.

It?s no wonder that shrimp continues its hold as the most consumed seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The most recent NOAA figures also show that seafood consumption is up 7.1%, with Americans consuming 4.5 billion pounds annually.

?Consumers are comfortable with seafood and they know more about it,? says Joe Massa, whose family has been in the restaurant business for 60 years. ?They know that seafood can be healthier for them and that when it?s fresh and prepared correctly, there?s nothing quite like it.?

At Massa?s and Massa?s Seafood Grill in Houston, guests demonstrate deeper knowledge. ?A few years ago, people were not asking whether fish was wild or whether the tuna is sushi grade. Today our customers want to know.?

Getting Grilled
Operators report that demand for seafood is at an all-time high.

?People have known for a long time that fish is good for them, but it seems that there?s more and more evidence backing up the nutritional claims,? says Rich Vellante, executive chef at Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurants.

As interest in fish?s healthful profile becomes more prevalent so do lighter preparations. ?Our customers look for simple preparations that highlight the fresh fish and seafood we use,? says Robert Sulatycky, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago.

Sulatycky pairs jumbo lump crab and seared ahi tuna with avocado mousse, crisp plantain slices and mango vinaigrette. A recent menu selection also included poached wild salmon with haricots verts, roasted tomatoes and basil sauce.

?This summer, our seafood sales were excellent and we?ve expanded our seafood menu accordingly,? says Ken Martin, executive chef at Salishan Spa & Golf Resort in Gleneden Beach, Ore. ?Guests are eating more of the leaner white fish, such as halibut, and my personal favorite, ling cod.?

At The Ebbitt Room in Cape May, N.J., Executive Chef Andrew J. Carthy is receiving more requests for less butter so he grills and sautés seafood using flavored oils, vinegars and broths to accentuate fish.

Grilling also is the guest preparation of choice for seafood at McCormick & Schmick?s restaurants. ?But fried seafood is still in strong demand in some regions because it?s what people grew up eating,? says Steve Foote, senior chef at the Portland, Ore.-based chain. ?The key seems to be regionalizing menus to give people what they want.?

In August, Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio?s Fresh Mexican Grill introduced Cabo Coconut Shrimp Tacos with pineapple-mango glaze.

Ethnic Equations
Interest in sushi also contributes to the popularity and healthful image of seafood. A variation of raw tuna with Japanese ingredients such as soy and ginger is a regular menu item at traditional American operations such as Colvin Run Tavern. The Vienna, Va., restaurant offers sesame-seared tuna with baby bok choy, crispy ginger and peanut-dressed cucumbers. At Metairie, La.-based Ruth?s Chris Steak House, seared ahi tuna is served with a ?spirited sauce with hints of ginger and beer.? In New York City, Laurent Tourondel?s BLT Steak menus tuna tartare served with avocado and soy-lime dressing.

?People understand flavors and demand bold tastes,? says Richard Arakelian, national executive chef for Sodexho USA?s corporate services division, based in Whippany, N.J. ?They understand ethnic foods more than ever, so we have to take this into consideration and offer intriguing menu solutions. People don?t want strictly authentic dishes as much as they want bold and exciting flavors.?

At Sodexho accounts, ginger, soy, fish sauce, mirin, miso and rice wine are common seafood partners, and grilled or steamed fish often is accompanied by chutney, spicy relish or salsa. A current Caribbean-inspired special features an open-faced grilled salmon sandwich with spicy mango salad made with chiles, cilantro, green onion and lime juice.

The menu at the Pittsburgh-based Eat?n Park family-restaurant chain includes wasabi-crusted salmon while Cameron Mitchell says the most popular preparation at his Fish Market is Shang Hai style?a choice of fish steamed with ginger and green onions, served with sticky rice, spinach and rice-wine soy sauce.

Christopher Lee, executive chef at Striped Bass in Philadelphia, says the global pantry gives a chef almost limitless opportunities to showcase the beauty of fresh seafood. For example, most cuisines have a condiment, sauce or seasoning that can be applied to seafood. At Striped Bass, Lee has taken the fragrant combination of minced ginger, green onion, oil and salt?traditionally used in Chinese cooking?to season seared tuna. ?When you have fresh, beautiful product, the goal is to do as little to it as possible so you can taste the seafood,? he says.

Roasted Alaskan Halibut With Tomato, Fennel and Basil Salad is one of Chef Matt Lyman?s signature dishes at One Pico in Santa Monica, Calif.

Seasonal Dive
As quality and freshness set the standard in foodservice, seasonal menus and promotions have become the standards. Increasingly, operators regard seafood in the same way.

?It makes sense to feature seafood when it is in season?prices are better,? says Frank Scibelli, owner of Cantina, a regional Mexican restaurant, and Mama Ricotta?s, an Italian concept, both in Charlotte, N.C. ?It also gives guests something to look forward to.?

Chevys Fresh Mex capitalized on the bounty of Maine lobster throughout August, when the crustaceans were plentiful and not price-prohibitive. A limited-time promotion featured fajita-style lobster (with guacamole, sour cream, vegetables and other accompaniments) and lobster tacos (battered lobster with cilantro aioli wrapped in a garlic-herb tortillas). The 120-unit casual-dining chain based in Emeryville, Calif., also offered lobster tails marinated in garlic and herbs, sautéed in white wine and chile de arbol and glazed with the chain?s diabla sauce.

Operators say the familiarity of salmon (the third most-consumed seafood, according to government figures) has allowed menus to promote the fish when wild salmon runs from late spring and throughout the summer.

Minneapolis-based The Oceanaire Seafood Room begins the season with entrées such as Copper River king salmon with wasabi-and-sake emulsion. For restaurants that do not print menus daily, it?s smarter not to list the specific species of a wild fish such as salmon. ?What?s fresh changes from day to day,? says Lee. ?We use this opportunity to create excitement for the diner.?

Scoring with Fish
Disguising seafood with heavy seasonings and gloppy sauces is passé. New-school approaches to highlighting treasures from the sea celebrate simplicity, freshness and variety. For Christopher Lee, executive chef at Striped Bass in Philadelphia, the unique characteristics of seafood dictate preparation and flavor pairings.

One contemporary approach for grilled, steamed or sautéed fish and shellfish pairs it with warm vinaigrette, one that perhaps combines fresh lemon juice with the nuttiness of brown butter. Other citrus options include blood orange, Meyer lemon or key lime whisked with olive oil or a neutral oil such as grapeseed or canola. Fruit vinegars, such as fig, raspberry or huckleberry also pair well with certain species.

Reductions and classic sauces from meat dishes are popular accompaniments for seafood at Striped Bass. A flavorful fish such as salmon might be paired with a red-wine/black-olive bordelaise while delicate seafood might be accompanied by a white-wine chicken stock reduction as a base and whisked with an acid component. A chicken jus-based sauce with preserved lemon and rosemary matches John Dory, Lee says, while beef jus made with huckleberry vinegar would better suit halibut or swordfish.

Seafood Seasons
Operators suggest featuring seafood in season, a time when abundance dictates better pricing.

  • Spring: soft-shell crab, smelts
  • Late spring to early fall: wild salmon
  • Late summer to early winter: Pacific Coast halibut, king crab
  • Fall: East Coast lobsters, monkfish, cod
  • November: Nantucket Bay scallops
  • Winter: Oregon Dungeness crab

  • What?s Hot

  • Seafood?s health-benefit qualities
  • Exotic fish and seafood from around the world, both wild and farm-raised
  • Oyster species (some seafood restaurants feature up to 100 types throughout the year)
  • Regional shrimp, particularly species from the Gulf of Mexico
  • Laura Yee is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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