One of the joys of eating out is the mystery behind the menu. How do they get their eggs so luxurious? Their soups so creamy? Their fried chicken so crisp? And often we don't want to know the answers (butter, cream and lard, respectively). But if we're going to become regulars, those answers start to matter. Eventually, we have to acknowledge that what happens in a restaurant kitchen doesn't stay in a restaurant kitchen. It affects us -- and our world.
There are two reasons why I asked my server the origin of the shrimp I had ordered on my first visit to Seafire Grill, Short Pump's newest upscale seafood option and sister of local favorite The Grapevine: flavor and fisheries. The fewer miles fish travels, the fresher it is and the better it will generally taste. But true lovers of seafood also recognize that what we eat today has an impact on what we may be able to eat tomorrow. Contrary to the old adage, there may not be plenty of fish in the sea.
Our server didn't know the origin but said she'd ask. The restaurants where servers actually know this sort of detail are rare and usually require reservations far in advance. After a few moments the young woman returned with her answer. "Maryland." Is that where they're caught or where the company from which you order is located? I asked. She blushed (or so I guess, it's a dim dining room) and disappeared again to pester a decreasingly patient chef. It was the company, of course, that's in Maryland. I ate the shrimp anyway.
Two weeks later I begrudgingly returned. And thank goodness I did. My first visit was heavy with mediocrity: from the atmosphere (picture yourself listening to a Muzak rendition of "The Long and Winding Road" while watching a high school-aged hostess attempt to clean a fish tank) to the sweet but unskilled service and logo-laden menu that screamed of focus groups. And all of that was before trying the food, which was heavy with fried goodies, some of which seemed to have entered the store in a frozen, breaded state. Then there was one of the weirdest items I've encountered in Richmond: the risotto ball. I know, it doesn't sound too bad until it arrives alongside the surf and turf (which hits the $30 bell), and you cut into it and encounter a creamy center of cheese spread.
On that second visit, however, I discovered that my primary criticisms had not been mine alone. The Muzak had been replaced with Miles Davis. The fish tank was glowing. Our server was charming, but also quick and knowledgeable. Even the answer to our questions about product origin had improved.
On occasion, our waiter told us, the owner takes delivery of fresh Chesapeake Bay summer riches caught by "friends of the restaurant." But most days the kitchen relies on purveyors including P.T. Hastings and the aforementioned Maryland firm, both of which, according to the waiter who heard it from the chef, adhere to the Red List. Translation? These distributors buy only seafood that, according to an internationally compiled list on the health of global species, are above the "sustainable loss threshold" in other words, they aren't being fished right out of existence. It's the Red List that lets those in the industry know that (as of this printing) wild-caught shrimp from the Atlantic are plentiful, but imported black tiger shrimp, tiger prawn and white shrimp are not and should be avoided. And knowing that a restaurant adheres to the advice of the Red List means that I can eat there and relax; the shrimp on my plate were not just delicious but also guilt-free.
And so I indulged: a colossal shrimp cocktail, crab-stuffed shrimp, battered shrimp with a chutney glaze. And all were as good as you would expect in a high price-point supper club. The sherry-laced she-crab soup was impressively rich (I won't spoil the pleasure by listing what makes it so), and the specials featured fish that were "just in," including whole wild-caught red snapper with firm yet buttery flesh stuffed with herbs and butter-flashed in a pan. The pan is slid into a very hot oven and seven minutes later, it's tableside looking up at my wife with one marble-white eye.
The fish was delicious. But was it really wild-caught off the northwest Hawaiian islands (as opposed to the main Hawaiian islands or anywhere else in the world)? The former is considered a healthy fishery, but all other red snapper (and I suspect my meal fell into this latter category) is deemed by the Red List as fish to avoid.
Lesson learned. Because I love well-prepared red snapper, and because I want my seafood-loving daughter to be able to indulge in this treat throughout her lifetime, I'll keep pestering waiters with geography questions about fish. But I've got to train myself to travel with a pocket copy of the Red List (available from Seafood Watch online). I've got faith that eventually Seafire Grill and its peers will ensure their own survival by safeguarding fisheries. But while they get up to speed, I'll do my part. S
Seafire Grill ($$)
3061 Lauderdale Road at Church Road
Monday: 5-10 p.m. (beginning Oct. 1)
Tuesday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Sunday dinner: 3-9:30 p.m.
To read more about local seafood practices, go to www.styleweekly.com.
Red Fish, Green Fish
Do you know what's on the list?
by Deveron Timberlake
Fish is selling better than ever in Richmond, in both restaurants and stores. But consumers and diners aren't usually asking where it came from or whether it's sustainable, despite an international movement to protect the over-fished varieties and promote better environmental practices. China remains a big source for fish production, and consumers have a difficult time finding out the true origins of what they're eating.
Customers at Ellwood Thompson's can track the "safe to purchase" and "red/avoid" lists through the store's involvement in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which studies patterns of over-fishing and sustainability. Red snapper, sturgeon, turbot and haddock are currently labeled red, along with two dozen others. Among the safe group are catfish, dogfish, line-caught mahi and most farmed fish, though some activists have additional concerns about aquaculture and health.
More customers at Ellwood's ask about mercury levels in fish than about sustainability, but environmental consciousness plays a factor in their purchases, as it does at Good Foods Grocery. There, manager Will Taylor says people who worry most about the sources of their fish sometimes choose to use fish-oil capsules instead. "We get a lot of questions about where our fish come from -- even canned fish," he says. "Standards are sometimes misleading, and it's hard to be sure where some fish comes from, but a lot is from China," he says. The store sells only wild-caught salmon and tuna and no farm-raised fish. Varieties that are over-fished or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment are not sold at either store.
Local restaurant menus are vague about the origins of most fish, although many keep red snapper on the permanent menu.
Chef Bill Foster at Café Zed says he uses only sustainable fish, particularly the farm-raised hybrid rockfish or wild-caught shrimp. But "keeping up with the constantly rotating list" can be a challenge, he says. "I didn't realize monkfish was on the red list, but one thing I won't buy at all is Indonesian shrimp, which are raised in really filthy conditions."
Not all Richmonders share such concerns.
"We have seen almost no reaction to that [published list] in our shop here," says Brian O'Donohue of Tuckahoe Seafood. "We're selling tons of Chilean sea bass, cod, Alaskan king crabs, orange roughy and all are on the avoid list. But people are still loving it and buying it, and so far I would have to say that I'm not really seeing any impact from this particular document.
"Any effort to manage this finite resource is a good thing," he continues, "and at heart it's a good thing. But I don't think it's the consumer who needs to understand it -- it's the fishing community and the providers who should be responding to it. It's the processors and wholesalers and regulatory authorities who have to do a better job of managing this resource." O'Donohue recommends halibut and striped bass as good alternatives to the red-listed fish.
At Yellow Umbrella Seafood, co-owner David Whitby says more people ask about mercury levels or PCBs than about threatened fish. "The price of sea bass has actually fallen because they're improving the level of sustainability," he says. "When you look behind the scenes, there are a lot of efforts to bring the numbers back," especially at the big Alaskan fisheries.
A hotter topic now, Whitby says, is the increasing demand for bluefin tuna. It's so sought-after in Japan that consumers pay exorbitant prices, particularly for the sardine-fattened and oily fish that so-called tuna cowboys corral and harvest. In Richmond, when he can get it, Whitby prices the stuff at $35 a pound, and it's always sold out by the end of the day. His other big sellers are rockfish, tuna, halibut, wild salmon and swordfish, some of which are on the "avoid" list.
Bon Air Seafood advertises that it imports no fish products from China.
Other retailers say the list appears to be making little or no impact on their customers' habits. If the fish is in the case, it's fair game, they reason, and as long as suppliers are fishing legally, the list is rarely a factor. "Consumers can refuse to buy certain fish, and that will send a message ultimately," O'Donohue says. But so far, that's a protest that's been hard to discern among the rank and file in Richmond.
For more information, see www.endangeredfishalliance.org or www.seafoodchoices.com.