How to make waves with your seafood menu
Going with the flow when it comes to diner demand is getting harder for seafood-selling operators. Will Hawkes discovers how to put fish on the dish despite the price crunch
CrabShakk Botanics, a fish restaurant that opened last year in Glasgow, is a treat for the senses. Based in the Botanic Gardens Garage, a tiled, peppermint-green striped structure built on Vinicombe Street in 1912, it's an airy, plant-filled room that's modern but with the sort of proportions that encourage indulgence.
The menu, a greatest hits of Scottish seafood, does likewise. There are options for all inclinations, from classic (fish and chips, £16) to blow out (fruits de mer, ‘market price'), plus a smoked fish plate, crab, oysters, lemon sole and much more besides. No wonder that, on a chilly Saturday afternoon in January, the place is filled with the gentle buzz of contentment that characterises the best restaurants.
Glasgow should, by rights, be full of restaurants like this – and to be fair, there are more than there used to be. A city once renowned for its culinary monotheism (the Ubiquitous Chip, opened in 1971, was named in frustration at the state of Glaswegian cuisine) now has two Crabshakks, while Fat Lobster has recently arrived to bolster a scene dominated by Shucks, the Finnieston and Gamba, the latter now more than 25 years old. Elsewhere in the UK, the likes of London's Maresco and Saltie Girl are helping to keep seafood up to date.
Seafood, when done well like this, is clearly popular, but these are testing times. Both food service visits (-14%) and servings (-15%) were down year-on-year according to the latest figures from Seafish (July to September 2022). Rising prices – exacerbated by spiralling raw material costs and stark labour shortages – and the cost of living crisis is eating into the seafood market. So, what does the future hold?
It could be that Crabshakk Botanics' blend – elegance at a variety of price points – is the key. So what options are there for progressive operators?
Anyone who has visited Crabshakk Botanics is aware of how good Scottish seafood is. Recognition of that came in January, at culinary competition Bocuse D'Or, where contestants were tasked with preparing a meal using Scottish monkfish, scallops and mussels.
It was the first time fish has featured so prominently since 2011 (when competitors were again faced with a line-up featuring Scottish fish). Denmark emerged victorious with the UK seventh out of 24 teams.
"[Getting Scottish fish featured like this] meant a lot of work in the years running up to it, but it was such a big opportunity, and it was really worth it," says Seafood Scotland's Adam Wing, head of trade marketing. "It just reinforces the fact that for the top chefs, and the best culinary competition, Scottish seafood is seen as the best or one of the best out there."
This sort of international recognition is reflected in the way British customers approach fish now, he adds. Consumers are now bracketing Scottish seafood alongside other high-quality British products, like sparkling wine. Provenance is equally important in top restaurants where scallops, for example, will be listed as Orkney hand-dived scallops, not just scallops. A lot of the work that Seafood Scotland does, particularly on social media, is about giving customers confidence to try something new: Wing points to a recent Instagram post about how to shuck oysters.
"I think people are becoming more experimental," says Wing. "The UK food and drink scene is growing year-on-year, and customers are increasingly prepared to try different things. We haven't in the past always had the best reputation for food and drink, but I think now Britain is one of the best places to come – look at London, for example. You can get pretty much any cuisine from around the world."
An increasing public interest in sustainability is reflected in the way Scottish fisheries go about their work, including technological innovations such as cameras on nets to ensure non-quota fish are not caught and that the net can be opened to let them go. Scotland will host the Global Seafood Alliance's Responsible Seafood Summit next year, a reflection, Wing says, of how seriously the issue is taken in Scotland.
As part of his remit to promote Scottish seafood, Wing is working with Bocuse D'Or UK, which means introducing top chefs from here and abroad to Scottish produce. They're often amazed by the quality, he says. "A few weeks ago, I hosted [chef at three-Michelin-starred Mirazur in southern France] Mauro Colagreco in Scotland, and he was blown away by what he saw. He wanted to come ahead of the opening of his new restaurant in London at the Old War Office. He's very keen to come back!"
One other trend that Wing highlights is tinned fish, which is making an impact in foodservice as well as at home. He points to the quality produced at International Fish Canners in Fraserburgh, which specialises in mackerel, sardine and Atlantic salmon – and to Saltie Girl, a restaurant that opened in Mayfair in London four months ago.
Most of Fleet Street's restaurant critics have already trooped through Saltie Girl's pale blue door in Mayfair. This Boston seafood restaurant may have got mixed reviews, but one of its ideas at least is worthy of a second look: the tinned fish menu, featuring close to 100 options. There are sardines, anchovies, clams, trout and more, most of them from companies based on the Iberian peninsula.
That makes sense because quality tinned fish is more a Bilbao than Boston thing. Anyone who's been to the original tinned fish bar, Sol e Pesca, in Lisbon, will know what an effective and potentially value-focused option this can be. This Bairro Alto bar, based in a former fishing tackle shop, offers a dizzying variety of tinned seafood to complement its simple drinks menu. The tins are decorative as well as delicious, a riot of bright red, green and yellow that – when sensitively deployed – can offer the light and colour of the warm south alongside its flavour too. This is not preserved fish as the British know it.
Brindisa, the London-based Spanish specialists, is a good place to start. It has been bringing in some of the best tinned Spanish seafood for decades, including perhaps the best known brand Ortiz. The Basque company, founded in 1891, is among those sold at Saltie Girl in vibrant yellow tins. Brindisa also sells Catrineta, the Galician company whose more sober branding disguises the high quality of the fish.
Spice and sustainability
Traditional European cooking has leant on delicate flavouring to complement the main ingredient, with herbs like dill or parsley, for example. Things have evolved, though. In a world where fish tacos and prawn curries are increasingly in-demand, there's a call for spicier sidekicks, according to Tasneem Alonzo, joint managing director at Lähde brand by EHL Ingredients.
"When reviewing fish dishes to add to the menu, look to global cuisines for inspiration, as Brits are constantly on the lookout for the next big food trend," she says. "Brits have an ever-evolving love affair with international food and are always open to new flavours and tastes, so it's important to offer a variety of quality, authentic dishes with innovative flavour combinations and varying spice levels. It's also important to offer free-from, organic, sustainably-sourced options to cater to these growing sectors and consumer preferences."
Fish is also rightly seen as a healthy option – a factor which, according to Laky Zervudachi, head of sustainability at Direct Seafoods, should be a key aspect in selling it. "It's not always common knowledge," he says. "To make consumers more aware, operators need to boast of the many fantastic benefits seafood brings.
"Displaying nutritional values on menus, fun health facts on display boards and ensuring servers are clued-up and ready to speak to consumers on the health benefits will all help to resonate with them and increase margin on seafood. With the continued emphasis on healthy eating and wellbeing, tapping into this trend with enticing fish and seafood options will be vital."
Then there's sustainability, a factor whose significance grows by the year. Seafood from Norway last year launched a campaign aimed at demonstrating how sustainably sourced seafood can play a part in helping to meet the world's growing food demand. "We can see there is a demand for seafood on the menu, and while we are all dealing with rising costs, it's important that we don't forget the importance of sourcing sustainably," says Victoria Braathen, UK Director, Norwegian Seafood Council. "By choosing Seafood from Norway, you can be confident you are choosing the best option for our planet, as well as a nutrient-rich protein that's healthy for you and your customers."
Direct Seafoods directseafoods.co.uk
Seafood Scotland www.seafoodscotland.org
Seafood From Norway https://fromnorway.com
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