Fish has been familiar fare on fine-dining and quick-service menus; now consumers find more tasty, affordable choices in between.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Casual is chic. High-profile chefs are scrambling to open haute burger and pizza joints; trendy menus tout corn dogs and meatballs; and even chicken wings have renewed cachet. Yet beyond shrimp or fish and chips, seafood has been missing from menus' profitable middle ground.
"There are those who say that if fish costs $8.99, it can't be good, but that's the battle we fight," says Russell Bry, chief culinary officer of San Francisco-based fast-casual chains Go Roma and Boudin SF, where cooked-to-order entrées include tilapia piccata and lemon-herb-crusted sockeye salmon.
The frozen fillets Bry sources serve the kitchen well for two reasons: They're affordable enough to carry menu prices below $10 and thin enough to cook in conveyor ovens in the five- to seven-minute time frame fast-casual service demands. Tilapia piccata, dusted with seasoned flour, is served with a pan sauce of white wine, lemon, capers and parsley, while lemon-and-herb-seasoned panko gives a crisp finish to the salmon, a recent summer special.
"People aren't going out for a piece of broiled fish they can make at home," Bry says. "They want something a little more exciting."
Casual-dining customers gravitate to high-impact flavors but prefer that they come from sauces and other accompaniments rather than the fish itself, says Bill Palmer, founder of Duluth, Ga.-based chain Up the Creek Fish Camp & Grill. That's part of the reason why The Original Grouben-mild, grilled whitefish punched up with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese on rye-is the restaurants' best-selling sandwich. The familiar Reuben build also offers diners an easy entry point-an approach that works for the popular Tilapia BLT as well.
"We continually try to come up with new ideas for different fish items as we try to bring fish back into more-mainstream dining," says Up the Creek President Steve Gonzalez.
Getting a Bite
Same-old soups and salads need not apply at London-based Wagamama's Boston location, where Head Chef Barnaby Godden plays to the city's seafood-savvy clientele with Japanese-inspired recipes.
Grilled barramundi, a delicately flavored, flat whitefish not common outside fine dining, headlines the Asian-style Fish Salad. Six-ounce portions are draped over thinly sliced zucchini, daikon, carrot and red onions that are tossed with bean sprouts and cilantro in a coconut-chile dressing spiked with fish sauce.
Although barramundi is purchased filleted, each piece is trimmed further for consistent portioning, leaving healthy-sized pieces to join grilled salmon, shrimp and marinated squid in Seafood Ramen. The Japanese stock dashi is the base for the hearty soup, thick with seaweed, marinated bamboo shoots known as menma, green onions and seasonal greens.
Simplicity and price-the salad is $10.95; the ramen is $12.50-are two reasons Godden's recipes fit so well under the casual-fish umbrella. Also appealing to Wagamama's clientele is that both dishes are available for takeout.
Cynthia Lategan, senior executive chef for residential dining at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says students are more likely to choose fish entrées that deliver bold, spicy flavors. A house-made sauce of curry paste, fish sauce, paprika, chicken base and sugar simmered with coconut milk and finished with lime juice sparks positive response to Thai Red Curry Crispy Cod (fillets coated in cornstarch and flour and deep-fried). Purchased sweet-and-spicy plum sauce jazzes up beer-battered hoki.
Better presentation also boosts sales, Lategan says.
"We are serving the fish on platters on hot decks instead of in pans on steam tables, so it creates more of a feeling of a catered event than an institutional setting," she says.
Believing customers of his upscale seafood restaurant Go Fish in Addison, Texas, might also patronize a fast-casual fish concept, Mike Hoque opened Fish Xpress in North Dallas. Having an established customer base helped encourage trial among diners wary of fish outside of fine dining, and reaction was so positive that Hoque now has three more units under construction.
Fish Xpress diners build entrées around grilled fillets of trout, salmon, mahi mahi, tilapia and yellowfin tuna served with a choice of sauce (ginger glaze, basil pesto or lemon olive oil) and sides such as mango slaw or grilled vegetables. Po' boys, wraps and tacos also are on the menu, but the signature seafood burger has emerged as Fish Xpress' top seller. House-made patties combine trimmings from fillets used in entrées with breadcrumbs and egg whites. The mixture is then seasoned with the chain's mildly spicy blend.
Casting Out Lines
Versatility and affordability-and of course, mild flavor-make tilapia, salmon, grouper and mahi mahi common players on casual fish menus, but operators are beginning to branch out. Fish Xpress can offer higher-cost yellowfin tuna by balancing it on the menu with less-expensive items such as salads.
Atlanta-based fast-casual chain Boneheads Grilled Fish & Piri Piri Chicken plans a limited-time offer featuring farm-raised Chilean sea bass with mango salsa and also is considering menuing black cod, now ubiquitous in fine dining.
Serving smaller portions than higher-end restaurants would help rein in costs, says Scott Vogel, founding partner of and director of culinary development for the concept (owned by Atlanta-based Raving Brands). Diners get extra value by completing meals with a side and one of three toppings: cucumber-lime yogurt sauce, sautéed piri piri (spicy chile) mushrooms or pineapple salsa.
Finding more-approachable ways to present fish can work in higher-end restaurants' favor, as well.
Executive Chef Scott Peacock, who serves seasonal Southern cuisine at Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Ga., says familiar, low-key accompaniments help keep diners in their comfort zone. Succotash often finds its way onto his summer menu, while roasted okra flecked with mint takes over in autumn.
For salmon croquettes, a Southern favorite, Peacock combines flaked, poached fish with breadcrumbs, egg, lemon juice and green onions. He matches the skillet-fried cakes with stone-ground grits and sautéed spinach. For deep-fried catfish fillets, his current companions of choice are even simpler: hush puppies and fries.
Classy or Casual, Fish Fits the Bill
Midprice concepts are developing creative fish preparations with flavor profiles similar to those of fish dishes on upmarket restaurant menus.
- Piri-Piri-Dusted Pacific Bigeye Tuna $28 at Dallas Fish Market in Dallas -OR- Sautéed tilapia tacos seasoned with citrus, piri-piri spice and Boneheads' Sauce, with a side $7.99 at Boneheads Grilled Fish& Piri Piri Chicken, multiple locations
- Cedar-planked fish of the evening $28 at Table Fifty-Two in Chicago -OR- Rotisserie cedar-planked salmon $6.95 at University of California, San Diego
- Grilled Catalina swordfish with rémoulade sauce $24 at Osetra The Fishhouse in San Diego -OR- Grilled herb-and-garlic-marinated mahi mahi sandwich with rémoulade sauce $9.29 at Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill, multiple locations
- Oven-poached Idaho trout roulade with lobster-and-spinach stuffing, potato cake and lemon-shallot butter $25 at Mortimer's in Boise, Idaho -OR- Trout spanakopita with creamy spinach-and-feta filling, crispy leeks and salmon roe $10 at The Lazy Goat in Greenville, S.C.
- Rare ancho-chile-crusted tuna with grilled peaches, black beans, cucumber and peanut salad $34 at LuLu Wilson in Aspen, Colo.-OR- Ancho Salmon Adobe Wrap with chipotle-orange vinaigrette, goat cheese and red peppers $10 at Blue Adobe Santa Fe Grill in Mesa, Ariz.
Turnaround is Fare Play
Rotisserie ovens are kitchen workhorses, so why not get even more bang for your buck and add fish to the rotation?
"The salmon we do in the rotisserie gets beautifully browned on the outside, but it's still really moist inside," says Executive Chef Cynthia Lategan, who seasons fillets with lemon, pepper and oregano and cooks them in rotating baskets in the rotisserie at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Union Street Market manager Sarah Gittere prepares whole sides of mahi mahi and salmon on metal planks in the rotisserie. Employees carve 4-ounce portions to order, topping salmon with honey-lime butter and mahi mahi with pineapple salsa.
Fish is popular at the University of California, San Diego, and the rotisserie provides for a simple, economical recipe, says Julia Engstrom, the university's manager for culinary enhancement. Whole sides of salmon rubbed in olive oil and sprinkled with fresh herbs, salt and pepper are covered in lemon slices and cooked on cedar planks. Dill-yogurt sauce or sweet, hot mustard with fresh dill complements the fish.