A whole branzino encased with a salt-and-egg-white mixture that coagulates and hardens, providing a "lovely fish that was cooked on the bone to preserve the flavor."
Each year as summer rolls around, seafood dishes begin appearing at the top of “daily special” menus as diners look for healthier and lighter fare.
Seafood restaurants see boosts in traffic both at the beach and inland. In NYC, chef Luke Venner of BLT Fish and BLT Fish Shack says summer ushers in a throng of diners who are returning from the beach and want to eat light.
“No one is trying to eat a super piping hot beef stew in the summer,” he says. “People are always going to lean toward seafood.”
In response, many chefs across the country are moving beyond the more traditional fish species and flexing their culinary chops, inventing seafood dishes that stand out from the crowd, such as innovative chowders, ceviches and crudos, and whole fish dishes.
For example, chef Vitalii Kovalev of Ariana in Manhattan has added a Sturgeon Pelmeni to his menu of traditional Russian cuisine refined with contemporary touches. The Pelmeni, a dumpling-like half-moon-shaped stuffed pocket, is made with squid ink and then stuffed with fresh sturgeon shipped daily from the West Coast.
“We sauté it, mix it with spices and add a special, fish-based sauce that turns yellow due to the saffron,” Kovalev says. “You can taste the sturgeon in the sauce.”
Restaurant operators work closely with their seafood vendors this time of year, as purveyors keep up on what fishes are being harvested and potentially overharvested. BLT Fish will be adding slipper clams to the menu, an aquatic dish chef Venner had never heard of until this Spring. The clams will be steamed and combined with yellow tomatoes canned late last summer to create a broth for a take on Manhattan clam chowder.
“It will be a nice hot soup that’s light in style,” he says. “When you have a menu that’s completely seafood, you’re always looking for opportunities to be witty with it,” he says.
Sustainability is an increasingly important topic in the seafood space, and Venner says he sees more and more “craft seafood” popping up. More people are understanding the value of farm-raised seafood as opposed to wild fish. BTL buys fish from a purveyor who is not allowed to open the box, and Venner says he is comfortable knowing it came directly from the source, he knows when it was harvested and he can inspect the fish himself. He associates “craft seafood” with someone who really cares about the product they’re producing, whether it be beer, cocktails or seafood.
Also on the sustainability front, chefs across the U.S. are finding creative ways to highlight “trash fish” to focus attention on underfished and oft-discarded species, and away from the overfished variety. In Cleveland, chef Jonathan Sawyer recently presented a multicourse “trash fish” dinner. At Oceana in Manhattan, executive chef Ben Pollinger is serving Bluefish en Saor, which is lightly dusted in flour, pan-fried in olive oil and bathed in a warm marinade of white wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. At CBD Provisions in Dallas, executive chef Michael Sindoni has a daily-changing Whole Fried Gulf By-Catch on the menu, served with braised okra and an herb salad.
Without chefs doing their thing, the by-catch fish would be thrown back into the water, wasting food for both humans and marine species.
What sounds more unappetizing than trash fish? Answer: The new trend in South Korea, where locals have developed an appreciation of hongeo, described in a recent New York Times article as releasing odors reminiscent of an outhouse. Served most often as chewy pink slabs of sashimi, hongeo is prized by enthusiasts for the ammonia fumes it releases, so strong they can cause mouths to peel when eaten.
Owners of restaurants that specialize in hongeo advise customers to seal their jackets in plastic bags before the meal and offer to spray them with deodorant afterward.
Back in New York at BLT, a fish you could actually go out in public after eating would be the salt-crusted branzino, a whole fish that is encased with a salt-and-egg-white mixture that coagulates and hardens. The salt permeates the fish and Venner says diners get a lovely fish that was cooked on the bone to preserve the flavor.
Then there’s the inventive build-your-own seafood restaurant Fish Shop, which recently expanded from its one location in San Diego into Los Angeles. Fish Shop hooks customers with a choice of a dozen fresh fish or shellfish options delivered to each location daily. Diners pick from one of the seven marinades and then select a style, such as a taco, sandwich, salad or plate.