Things to Know Before You Order Seafood—and Pay for It
We answer eight important questions before you put something fishy in your mouth.
ARE THOSE REALLY DIVER SCALLOPS?
Many Dallas restaurants describe scallops on their menus as “diver” when, in fact, very few actually serve hand-harvested scallops. Why? Because most chefs don’t know the difference. After reading a post about the topic on our SideDish food blog, a brave Richard Chamberlain, the chef-owner of Chamberlain’s Fish Market Grill, admitted that he’d made a mistake and had “diver” printed on his menu while he was serving what most upscale restaurants serve: dry-packaged U-10s (10 to a pound). Chamberlain not only reprinted his menu, but he hosted a blind tasting for a small group of SideDish readers. All 12 participants picked the real divers over the U-10s. The diver scallops were denser and had a meatier texture than the U-10s. If either one of these cooked scallops appeared alone on a plate, you would consider it a thing of beauty, but side by side, the two present striking differences. The diver stands solid, like a marble sculpture. The U-10 looks like Jell-O, sagging under its own weight. Divers cost 40 percent more than the U-10s, about $7 per animal wholesale, before shipping. So if you’re ordering “four pan-seared diver scallops on a bed of wilted baby spinach” for $29, you aren’t getting diver scallops. Note: when buying scallops at market, look for a pale beige to creamy pink color. Avoid stark white scallops. They have been soaked in chemically treated water, a marketing ploy that increases the weight of the product.
WILD VS. FARM RAISED: WHICH IS REALLY BETTER?
Some menus tout farm-raised fish as a good thing. But it depends on where and how the fish was farmed. There is more than one way to farm a fish, and each method presents its own potential hazards. Raising fish in plastic tanks inside greenhouses, a common way of raising tilapia, can be effective. However, problems occur when greedy operators overcrowd tanks. Fecal material pollutes the water and raises the potential for disease. The same conditions can occur in farm ponds, where fish are fed commercial fish food and chemicals to promote fast growth. If the water quality is controlled with proper circulation, the fish remain healthy. More successful methods involve placing cages in lakes, ponds, rivers, or oceans to contain and protect fish until they can be harvested. Again, overpopulation of the cages is the first concern. Too many fish in a cage can pollute the water. “Cage failures” allow non-native species to escape into the wild. If they have been infected with sea lice or intestinal worms, they can spread disease to wild fish. Ocean farms, particularly those in Chile, have sparked many controversies in aquaculture. Too many areas are overpopulated, illegally fished, and the water is polluted by decaying fish bodies and fertilizer. Bottom line: farming can be done responsibly. And it can protect against overfishing of wild stocks. But chefs need to know their suppliers and which farms they buy from.
WHAT IS “SUSHI GRADE” FISH?
You would like to believe the raw tuna you eat in a sushi restaurant is actually “sushi grade tuna.” There are no FDA regulations that designate seafood as “sushi grade” or “sashimi grade.” The only concern of seafood inspectors is whether the fish has a parasite destruction guarantee, which is accomplished by freezing until the naturally occurring parasites are killed. Some vendors sell lower-grade tuna as “sushi grade” by injecting the fish with carbon monoxide, which imparts redness to the meat. This process is outlawed in Japan. Reputable restaurants serve grades 1, 2, or 2-plus as sushi, but they are not required to.
DOVER? I HARDLY KNOW HER!
Before you order Dover from a menu, ask your server where the fish was caught. If you are paying less than $50, chances are the fish didn’t come from the cold waters of the North Sea. The firm, flat fish has been a delicacy in Europe and finer tables in the United States for a long time, a perfect excuse to take a fish with a less appealing name, like the Pacific flatfish (aka flounder), and market it as West Coast Dover sole.
ARE GULF COAST OYSTERS DANGEROUS?
Look at the fine print at the bottom of most seafood menus and you’ll find a city-mandated notice stating that there is a risk associated with eating raw proteins. The warning comes because people with compromised immune systems can get ill or die after eating uncooked Gulf Coast oysters containing the naturally occurring vibrio vulnificus bacteria that have been improperly refrigerated. Does the old saying that oysters should be eaten only in months with “r”s in them still apply? Not if the raw oysters you eat in the summer “r”-less months are harvested in the cooler waters of the Pacific Northwest (Northern California to Washington to Canada), Northeast (Maryland to Maine), and below the equator (New Zealand).
DOES COPPER RIVER SALMON DESERVE ITS STATUS?
Every May, millions of salmon make their way through the chilly waters of the Pacific to spawn in the rivers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia. Years before there was even a thought given to farm raising salmon, the folks around the Copper River held a big celebration to welcome back the wild salmon. The event turned into a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that turned the Copper River king salmon—the first to reach the seasonal market—into the industry’s first designer fish. Today, it still hogs the publicity and fetches the highest price. Yes, the king (Chinook) salmon from the Copper River tastes different. The rugged river produces a gamey flavor and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But other North American varieties, including the less expensive Copper River sockeye (red) and coho (silver), are equally flavorful. The wholesale price of salmon pulled from the Copper River runs close to $10 per pound higher than salmon caught in other rivers. Industrial pollution has diminished the production of Atlantic salmon, but Bay of Fundy farm-raised salmon is an excellent fish.
IS CHILEAN SEA BASS ACTUALLY CHILEAN?
Its original name was Patagonian toothfish or Antarctic toothfish. But marketers had more success calling it Chilean sea bass. Never mind that it’s not even a bass. It is found in the coastal waters around Chile, New Zealand, Australia, the Falkland Islands, and throughout the southern Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The species became popular in restaurants in the early 1990s because it is a fatty fish that holds its temperature well and doesn’t easily dry out—a perfect fish to serve for large banquets and high-volume businesses. The slow-growing fish lives more than a mile below sea level. To catch them, fishermen bottom trawl, dragging gear across the seafloor, which damages the habitat while snagging other marine animals. Because they live long—sometimes up to 40 years—and they breed late in life, sea bass can’t reproduce quickly enough to keep up with demand. Most Chilean sea bass in the U.S. market comes from boats that are fishing illegally and using unmodified bottom longlines. Both chefs and servers should know if the sea bass they are serving was delivered with proper documentation.
IS SWORDFISH DOWN FOR THE COUNT?
It was a sad day when Atlantic swordfish was taken off menus. In the late 1990s, swordfish populations were dwindling fast. Once mostly harpooned, the swordfish were easier prey for fishermen who turned to long lines with hundreds of hooks. These lines trapped more than swordfish. But U.S. government regulations and a group of restaurateurs who promoted the Give Swordfish a Break campaign launched in 1998 have helped the fish survive. Many chefs still believe it isn’t PC to serve it, but they needn’t worry. The swordfish is back.