Whatever happened to fish sticks? Or sole? Or plain old halibut steaks? They're still popular, of course, but to be in today, it is necessary to eat skate wings, ahi , opakapaka or any number of things never heard of a few years back.
Competitive California chefs demand ingredients that are new and provocative. That is one reason for the rise of what we call, with tongue in cheek, "oddball fish."
Some of these new fish have been around for years, relegated to a class called "under-utilized species." This means that they were not in demand by prestige markets or were limited to an ethnic trade. Black cod is one example. Other fish, like opakapaka, which comes from Hawaii, are bona fide luxury items, expensive and limited in availability.
There was a time, not so long ago, when fish lacked status. Mother didn't want it in the house because it was smelly, observed Jim McDavid, general manager of City Sea Foods, which distributes to restaurants and hotels. Now people are ordering and eating fish with a vengeance. And since it is eaten more often, there is more need for variety.
This year, the American Seafood Challenge, a national competition for chefs, was won by a Dallas chef who prepared catfish. Although catfish is not new, it has only recently, in farm-raised form, bid for the mainstream. Even more interesting, the second place winner presented a dish that would still shock some restaurant goers out of their seats. This was roast skate wings in red-wine butter, prepared by Elka Gilmore, formerly of Camelions in Santa Monica.
Given the conservative taste of the general public, the sporadic availability of some fish and their high prices, exotic species may never filter down to home kitchens. McDavid says that his best sellers are basics like swordfish, sole, sea bass, snapper and cods, "if they are very bland in taste." Californians think they like fish, he said, but with a qualification--it must not taste fishy.
Fish to Take Home
Nevertheless, some devotees risk introducing unusual seafood. One of these is Barry A. Cohen, a seafood wholesaler, retailer and restaurateur. Cohen owns the Olde Port Inn at Avila Beach, Calif., and this year opened the Olde Port Fish Company's Fresh Fish Grotto, a combined seafood market and restaurant in Bakersfield.
The Grotto has a 36-foot-long iced display case from which customers select fish to take home. Or they can pay $2 additional to have it cooked and served there, with mashed potato croquettes and coleslaw as accompaniments.
"We will order anything for our customers, from smoked eel to alligator," Cohen said. Staple fish such as snapper, swordfish, salmon and halibut dominate the Grotto's menu because availability is certain. The retail fish counter has those too but may also offer tilapia, goofish, gar, gopher cod, cow cod, buffalo fish, angel shark, opah and other uncommon species.
"People are looking around to see what's fun to eat. They are starting to get the hang of fish," Cohen said. "They never did before."
As part of his educational campaign, Cohen teaches customers to handle fish in their own kitchens. "They're afraid to take fish home to cook it because they're afraid they're going to ruin it. They don't know what to do," he said. Therefore, he has compiled the "Olde Port Simple and Delicious Recipe Series," a set of printed recipes given free to customers.
McDavid, who has been in the seafood business for 18 years, says he now faces more competition than ever. Supermarkets have enlarged their seafood departments. Retailers that never dealt in fish are adding seafood lines. And new people, such as Julee Harman, are creating niches for themselves.
Harman was once a pre-med student at UC Berkeley. About three years ago, she and a partner began to rove Los Angeles in a truck selling fresh crayfish and Louisiana redfish. Thanks to the Cajun blackened-redfish craze, their business flourished. Harman, who bought her partner out, now has her own wholesale business, Ocean Jewels, which supplies restaurants, hotels and caterers. Business is so good, she is looking for larger quarters.
"I'm still at the point where I manage and basically do everything." she said. "There's a lot of pressure and it's competitive. But generally, it's real fun."
Seafood Trucked and Flown
Harman brings in two or three shipments a week from Hawaii, and also flies and trucks seafood in from around the United States. Her biggest sellers are swordfish, salmon, tuna and halibut. But she does tend to get unusual fish. "I have no problem selling a lot of the under-utilized species," she said.
Harman says she introduced California farm-raised striped bass to the market. This expensive hybrid was bred from California white bass, which is a game species, and eastern striped bass.