Culinary Trends Reeling Seafood Into the Spotlight

We know that diners order seafood when they go out. Why? Either a lack of skill in forging fishy dishes at home, the lingering aroma that clings to the walls, or the perception that seafood is reserved for dining out experiences. For whichever reason, customers press for wondrous preparations. Beef consumption is down, vegetables are moving to the center of the plate, and seafood is controlling a lustrous spot on the menu. So, what’s next?

Salmon Will Always Be the Big Fish

A mild, steaky fish with mass allure, salmon is still king. Aqua-farmed or wild, salmon is adored by customers and often treated with impunity by chefs. Much akin to the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the aquatic world, salmon sells. A new trend? No. Real and relevant? A resounding yes.

But some of salmon’s parts and preparations are the bits making new waves.

Smoked salmon is another contender altogether. Moving across the table from sandwiched between two bagel halves and cream cheese, smoked salmon is getting serious. At Farfalla Trattoria in LA, the smoky variety of the popular fish is tossed in a classic vodka cream with butterfly-shaped pasta.

Salmon belly — thankfully — isn’t being put to waste. The fatty, oft overlooked trim has flavorful capacity and doesn’t have to be a cast-off expense. Long treasured on sushi menus, the belly gets hip on tacos at Forage in LA. Dressed with avocado, jalapeño slaw, green onion, and sriracha aioli, salmon belly is taking on culinary magnetism rather than hitting the bin.

The “L” word

Local is either A. The virtuous approach to keeping our food supply chain wholesome, or B. One helluva marketing tool. Either way, employing the "local" moniker sells food. Seafood is no different. Oysters wear “Hello my name is” with great pride. That tag is a selling device that takes ingredient provenance to a new place. At Washington, D.C.’s, Pearl Dive, the menu is built around oysters in their naked state. Well, that and an array of baked oysters, all replete with their provenance. One ingredient, many different origins.

Sustainability

Like local, “sustainable” carries vital worth for conscientious eaters. Barton Seaver’s “For Cod and Country” painted seafood in new colors. Seaver kicked open the aquarium, making clear that free-range chicken and single-source beef aren’t the only protein choices that get a nod towards wholesomeness. Origins spilt across the menu don’t just stick to cattle ranches. Rather, the new light on seafood often spells out who was responsible for catching which fish — and where. Line-caught isn’t just a fishing method; it is a strategy for hooking customers, as well. Remember the backlash to overfished swordfish? That was the beginning to what continues to be watchdog efforts at not plundering the seas. Sustainability means as much in the water as it does on land.

If It Swims, It Must Be Healthy

The drive towards healthier eating is not just for vegetarians. Fish has long been the compromise for feeling good about eating and not having to graze on twigs and pebbles. For instance, Seasons 52, with a mission of maintaining charm but keeping calories in check, menus as many seafood options as it does red meat and poultry options. Why? Lower in saturated fat combined with healthier cooking methods keeps the Boomers happy with the promise of big flavor while keeping the healthy bent.

Chef Owen Panzica | Photo Courtesy of Jim Berman

Ingredients Matter

When the focus of the dish is almost a singular dimension, that ingredient matters. A lot. Poke is a perfect specimen, like salumi or caviar, that basks in its own spotlight. When the ingredient is its own star and supporting cast, quality is everything.

“Poke is the new ramen,” decrees Owen Panzica, head chef at the Mirage Bar & Restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel in Hong Kong. Panzica adds, “raw and marinated fish is always good if you have a good supplier.”

Mussels Are Bar Food for a Reason

Reasonably priced, incredibly versatile, and very approachable, mussels fit perfectly into casual, upscale segments and gastropubs with their array of shareable plates that work as the hipster mating call.

Next generation mussels? Razor clams.

“Razor clams are great if you can get them fresh,” Panzica says. Their look and, frankly, their appearance offer just enough shock value to keep the adventurous groveling for more. Toss in the ability to customize sauces and butters, and you have opened the millennial fly trap of choice and customization.

Oysters on the Half Shell

The challenge of slurping down a half dozen, very questionable-looking goobers of salty-sweet, living sea gunk can be appealing enough to fuel oysters’ bounding sales. Like the attraction of poke’s raw presentation, this married with the provenance of the oysters’ resident waters folded together with just enough shock value make the half-shell dining experience an adventure. Gentle on labor, interesting enough to keep chefs dialed in, oysters served with little more than a mignonette as garnish, the half-shell mania is more full throttle than it is half empty.

Big flavors go beyond the coffee on the brisket and the sriracha ketchup on the custom grind burger. Grilled swordfish with yuzu butter is typical. Panzica cautions, “Don't let your creativity overpower the ingredients.”

Dry-rubbed whole branzino is coming of age. Bergamot smoked turbot is a contender. Going beyond the stodgy lemon-butter-wine trifecta raises the buzz around the seafood offerings, much as it does in the other menu segments.