Global flavors, new preparation methods, dietary recommendations and health benefits give many a reason to choose fish and shellfish over other menu items.
Consumers’ desire to eat healthier is the driving force behind the rising consumption of seafood. In Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report, 72% of consumers who said they were eating fish more frequently agreed with the statement, “I am trying to eat healthier and seafood is healthier.” Half of that same group said they were replacing meat with seafood, according to Jessica Henry, director of marketing at Clear Springs Foods. “Better availability of seafood options also factored in for about one-third of the surveyed group.
But it also comes down to taste. Henry shared the company’s observations that sweet sauces such as mango, plum, maple, sweet chili and sesame are beginning to gain traction. “Avocado is the fastest growing, believed to be used primarily as an ingredient in Poke bowls and fruit salsas, such as avocado mango,” she says, adding that alcohol-based sauces and citrus, BBQ, garlic and Asian flavors continue to emerge. Nut crusting with pistachios, walnuts, almonds and pecans is also popular, she notes.
But perhaps of greatest note is restaurant-goers’ desire to know where their food comes from. “Farm-to-table trends are extending further than the traditional locally sourced implications,” Henry says. “Geographic identity has become part of the farm-to-table movement with consumers placing greater trust in foods or seafood species identified with a location or region.”
As consumers have increasingly recognized the importance of choosing responsibly sourced, sustainable seafood, chefs are bringing more options to their tables that fit the bill, along with new flavors, combinations, species and methods of preparation that are sure to keep them choosing seafood over other options.
Eric Ripert, Chef/Owner
The highly acclaimed and awarded Le Bernardin opened its doors in 1986, serving fresh seafood prepared with respect. Its wide menu reflected a more conservative consumer at that time, who preferred recognizable choices such as shrimp, salmon, tuna, lobster and the like, albeit presented in four-star fashion. While variations of these species still remain on the menu, chef/owner Eric Ripert (named the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef in 2003) says today’s clientele is more open to trying different varieties of seafood and preparations.
People are interested in healthier eating, he says, but a meal at Le Bernardin is about the experience. “When they come here, they definitely want to explore,” he says. The restaurant has testing menus where they can see many different preparations inspired by different cultures. “Our clientele is not feeding themselves because they’re hungry, but more for the experience they get with us.”
While it brings in fish from Japan and Hawaii, Ripert says most of Le Bernardin’s menu pays homage to the East Coast. It incorporates lesser-known local fish like black bass, as well as skate and monkfish. “People are much more adventurous today,” he says.
The menu reflects Ripert’s and his team’s experiences in New York and throughout their travels. “There are always some influences coming from other cultures and countries mixed with French techniques since we’re a French restaurant,” he notes, adding that the philosophy is to not have many “signature dishes” so the restaurant can always progress. “We change the menu very often but don’t pressure ourselves in terms of how many new items we’ll include each time,” he says.
The poached Halibut with matsutake mushroom-black sesame salad and sea urchin-dashi broth, the Geoduck Sashimi with shaved radishes and ginger-ponzi dressing, and the steamed Black Bass with baby bok choy and bitter orange-lemongrass infused bouillon are all popular choices on the restaurant’s current menu, says Ripert. It only takes one look at the menu to understand what Ripert and Le Bernardin bring to the scene, in New York and beyond. “We’re a destination for seafood,” he says, “where our patrons will be pampered, have a very unique experience and eat delicious seafood with various influences.”
Red Fish Grill,
Austin Kirzner, Executive Chef
Seafood is a way of life in New Orleans and at Red Fish Grill, the focus is specifically on Gulf seafood. Located at the gateway to the French Quarter in a renovated 19th Century building, the restaurant is committed to serving it fresh, by season, and sustainably and ethically.
Austin Kirzner has been around seafood his entire life, growing up in New Orleans and waiting tables through high school and college at a seafood restaurant just a block away from where he now serves as executive chef in Red Fish Grill’s kitchen. Following formal culinary training and time at the renowned Commander’s Palace, he joined the restaurant in 2009 as a sous chef, and was named executive chef less than three years later.
The change in seasons for Kirzner and his team is dictated by the availability of the different types of seafood the restaurant serves. “Everything changes seasonally, but we never really go back to the same dish,” he says, except for the occasional signature dishes of BBQ Oysters, Alligator Sausage & Seafood Gumbo, and its Wood Grilled Redfish & Louisiana Lump Crabmeat that features Tasso (heavily-spiced, smoked ham) and roasted mushroom Pontalba potatoes with a lemon butter sauce. “Those are staples we can’t get away from,” he says.
Looking ahead to crawfish season, he says nothing is set yet in terms of what will be on the menu – it’s all about waiting for the first site of crawfish and then creating new dishes. “We work with local farmers, purveyors and fisherman and as soon as we get the first site of crawfish, we start in.”
It’s a waiting game to see what will be available from the seafood preparers, but it’s just what they do as the seasons turn. “Our seafood preparers call us with any specialty items, from soft-shell crab to crawfish and crab meat, and we get first choice,” he says. From there he and his team of sous chefs will see what’s been done in the past, but “don’t like to go back to the well. We like to stay relevant, and look at new food trends.”
Kirzner chides that the lighter, more sensible fare people are looking for today is a tall order in New Orleans. “We’re known for the heavy soups and sauces but we try to let the seafood do the talking for the dish,” he says. It’s really what’s in the center of the plate that is going to make the difference.” The new mantra is letting the Gulf seafood shine, using local ingredients to help, and focusing on what complements that dish.
Its Cast Iron Seared Redfish & Stewed Okra features bacon-braised okra and tomatoes, green onion popcorn rice and crispy onion rings. Blackening is a New Orleans staple, he notes. “We try to pay homage to where we come from but always in a new and different way.”
The restaurant’s Wood-Fired Grill option is also a very popular choice. As one of the only wood-burning grills in the city, clientele enjoy the option of selecting from eight to 10 different types of fish – all farmed locally – and adding one of six sauces, choosing from lemon butter, sauce au poivre, rosemary Worcestershire, smoked creole onion cream, satsuma ponzu (made from a local citrus) or lemon caper vinaigrette. They can also top it off with fried oysters, sautéed shrimp or lump crabmeat.
The sauce comes on the side, Kirzner notes, giving customers the option to eat lighter and always taste the fish and vegetables first. “It’s really about letting those flavors shine with the bounty of seafood and vegetables we have available locally.” This “steakhouse mentality” is a top seller at the restaurant. And it all comes down to finding dishes that are fun but that connect in some way to New Orleans, Louisiana or the Gulf. “We always try to have a back story for our dishes and connect them to where we are.”
John Critchley, Executive Chef
Once an oyster harvester, south shore Boston native John Critchley entered the Culinary Institute of America at age 17. After graduation, he went on to gain experience working under renowned chefs in Williamsburg, Virginia and Boston before becoming a winter harvester for Island Creek Oyster Co. in Massachusetts, where he concentrated heavily on sustainable seafood. He then moved to Miami to open Area 31 at Kimpton’s EPIC Hotel, which was named “Best New Restaurant” in 2009.
A move to Washington, DC, seven years ago meant more changes for Critchley. Last spring, after crossing paths with acclaimed chef Robert Wiedmaier and his partner, chef Brian McBride, for many years, he joined Siren as it was opening in The Darcy, a new hotel downtown. Still working with sustainable seafood, he says his focus has shifted over the past couple of years to more global, sustainable seafood. “I had been working with local seafood for so long that I missed some of the flavors you get from working with fish from the Pacific Northwest, Latin America, the Mediterranean,” he says. “We can try to find some of the similar flavors and characteristics but building a seafood-focused restaurant meant having all of those flavors versus staying with one particular region.”
At the whim of weather, the catch and quotas put on certain species, Critchley says, “Our menu has to keep evolving,” adding that over the years he has watched farming become much cleaner and the overall quality of fish increase significantly. Thanks, in part, to consumers being more educated and thus, their expectations as guests, as well as the number of restaurants opening that are uniquely different in their approaches, whether it be preparation methods or even the kinds or parts of fish being used. “People are now seeing some endearing qualities of simple fish,” he says. “Great chefs are putting together excellent dishes with what once was a relatively cheap piece of protein. As they grow in popularity, the prices are going up on those.”
Critchley concentrates on local ingredients to come up with new flavors and combinations. With everyone moving around and global influences, it’s easy to get little nuances, he says, but he often tastes an ingredient on its own and then determines the direction. “If it’s naturally sweet, I will look for something to complement that, or if it is sour or earthy, we’re looking for complementing flavors.”
The Big Eye Tuna with Kalamansi lime, sesame seed, wakame seaweed, macadamia nut and avocado mousse is a favorite from the Raw Bar, as is the Japanese Sea Urchin with edamame, blue crab custard, arctic surf clam and galil spice oil.
For its Plateau offerings, Critchley says he dresses every ingredient on the platter. “When you take a bite it’s with the flavors we feel enhance the fish or shellfish the best,” he says. “We do offer it naked for the purist who wants the fresh briny-ness of an oyster, but our dressed versions are very popular.”
The Fisherman’s Stew with chopped lobster and shrimp dumpling, seared bass, scallop, middleneck clams, sea urchin and squid ink brittle is a very popular choice, Critchley notes. “It’s a bright consume of shellfish and fume sauce,” he says, adding that the fume is made by blanching the bones of the fish they butcher every day, pressing the juices out and clarifying it.”
Siren’s menu is a la carte so people can “choose their own way” as Critchley describes, but the staff is highly trained to guide them because the chefs use a wide variety of ingredients from all over the globe. “It’s a very clean way of presenting the food. Our goal is to make people feel more energized after eating versus weighed down.” Of the global influences and flavors, Critchley says, simply, “It’s not so much a wandering focus, but comes more from studying these ingredients over many years and knowing how they help complement the fish.”