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Handline schools the public on seafood sustainability with summer series

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FISH MONGER  Water2Table chef Ben Spiegel demonstrates how to fillet a California halibut at Handline restaurant.
  • FISH MONGER Water2Table chef Ben Spiegel demonstrates how to fillet a California halibut at Handline restaurant.

For seafood lovers, summertime in California used to mean lots of fresh king salmon on the grill. Tragically, those days are over.

The Golden State's signature seafood is in short supply these days due to devastating impacts on the rivers the fish depends on to spawn. The state's salmon industry is limping along, and what is available is limited and very expensive.

The good news is there are sustainably sourced alternatives, but you need to know where to look—and what to look for.

Sebastopol's Handline restaurant is hosting a summer sustainability series aimed at educating consumers and the restaurant industry about locally sourced, sustainably harvested seafood. The first event was held July 16 under the shade of big oak trees on the restaurant's patio. The one-hour session offered insight into seafood sourcing with a particular emphasis on California halibut. Attendees were a mix of people from the restaurant industry and curious consumers.

When it comes to seafood off the menu, "fresh" is a relative term, as is "California," says Water2Table owner Joe Conti. Water2Table is a seafood purveyor that works with Bay Area hook-and-line fishermen.

Ninety-five percent of the halibut that appears in local restaurants comes from Mexico where fishing practices and regulations are not up to California standards, says Conti. Mexican fish is often not iced immediately after being caught and is shipped long distances, so it's less than fresh. Fish from Canada is held to higher standards but still has to travel to local markets and restaurants.

Conti meets fishermen after they come back to harbor in the evening. The fish usually make it to market the next day, a practice that he says represents just 1 percent of local halibut in Bay Area restaurants. It's a difference you can taste.

"Put it on the table, and you'll see," he says. "You can go raw with what we're doing."

In fact, that's just what Handline did. They served halibut crudo made with fresh sliced plums, mint, edible flowers and cat's tongue seaweed. The halibut, a pearly, translucent white, was wonderfully rich and silken.

Water2Table chef Ben Spiegel offered tips for identifying fresh fish. Look for fish that have clear eyes and flesh that springs back when pressed. And if the fish smells fishy instead of like the ocean, it's not fresh, he says.

"This is hopefully an opportunity to build a conversation within the restaurant community about responsibly sourced seafood," says Handline owner Lowell Sheldon.

Future sessions will focus on Tomales Bay oysters and farm-raised trout. The cost for the sessions $10.

For more information on the series, go to summersustainabilityseries.brownpapertickets.com.

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