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Catch It Before It's Canned

The albacore's here. Sushi lovers rejoice.

July 24, 2002|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albacore is probably the most commonly eaten fish in America. It's the "white-meat tuna" that comes in cans. But Southern Californians know that fresh albacore, the locally caught kind, is also one of our most seasonal specialties, available only for a couple of months during the summer, depending on the vagaries of weather and ocean currents.

For those in the know, the good news is the albacore are running. Russell Mizuno of Los Angeles Fish Co. says he got his first shipment three weeks ago. So far, supply has been spotty, but he's hoping it picks up this week.

"They've been staying too far off the coast to get very many," he says. Albacore spoils quickly because of its high fat content, so fresh fish have to be taken within a day's sail of the coast. Fish that are caught further out must be frozen.

Michael Cimarusti, the chef at Water Grill in Los Angeles, says good-quality, locally caught albacore "has a very pleasant flavor when it's impeccably fresh. And the color, when it's sliced really thin, is beautifully translucent."

These local albacore are smaller than the ones from farther out, with fish averaging 20 pounds rather than 40 to 50. The filets from these are small as well. If you're seeing albacore steaks, they're probably from the bigger fish.

Freshly caught albacore are summer favorites at sushi bars, where they're served as sashimi or sushi (shiro maguro) or served tataki-style, lightly seared on both sides. Locally caught albacore are usually offered only as specials or on an omakase menu the chef selects. If albacore is part of a set menu, it may be from frozen fish.

Local albacore is less common in American restaurants, though it does show up occasionally, simply grilled or in Japanese-style dishes.

Mizuno says the thing to look for when buying fresh albacore is color. It should be milky, not clear. In fact, its Japanese name can be translated as "white tuna." "The quality of albacore depends on how much fat it contains," he says. "If it's a little too lean, it looks almost like Jell-O. If it has enough fat, it looks like a pale white color, almost milky looking."

Because it is so fleeting and so scarce, locally caught albacore is hard to find at retail. Check Los Angeles Fish Co. downtown, at 420 Stanford Ave., between 3rd and 4th streets. It supplies many sushi chefs and it will sell to retail customers, though service and choice will be limited. It's best to get there before 11 a.m., and don't count on finding fish fileted, skinned and sold in pre-weighed portions.

Its texture is the best thing about fresh albacore, says Shunji Nakao, chef at the Hump in Santa Monica. "It's very tender is what it is," he says. Cimarusti doesn't use the fish all that often, though he did offer albacore sashimi as a special just last week. "I walked in the market and there was this perfect 20-pound fish so fresh you couldn't even open the gills. A fish that fresh, you've got to buy it."

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