Eat Like a Bottomfeeder

Where to get a seafood fix from the humblest of critters.

There's a lot of "forever" talk right now in the realm of seafood. We're down to 10 percent of the world's stocks of large predator fish, and they get smaller and smaller every year. In his depressing spring 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, Taras Grascoe chronicled his trip around the world scouring for seafood that wasn't overfished or environmentally disastrous to farm; the final list of guilt-free species he could eat was smaller than anyone would have imagined five years back. Goodbye, monkfish and Chilean sea bass. Goodbye, wild bluefin, skate, and cod. Goodbye, Vietnamese farmed shrimp, farmed Atlantic salmon, Japanese farmed hamachi.Northwesterners are definitely feeling the pain less than other Americans, what with our easy access to some of the planet's best-managed fisheries. But even this year, the collapsed salmon runs up and down the West Coast have had me rethinking how often I eat Seattle's signature fish. Given this year's pitiful catches of Copper River and Yukon kings, local chefs are selling chum, rebranded "keta," in the menu slot that once fêted the mighty chinook.And even though Alaskan stocks of wild halibut and black cod are healthy, farmed sturgeon is on the rise, and Pacific octopus is the catch du jour, I'm still finding myself judging my potential entrées on their role in the food chain.How do we settle for less? Deliciously. This year, I had decided to write a Best-of-Seattle blurb on "Where to Best Eat Like a Bottomfeeder"—with all apologies to our alpha-bottomfeeder, Mike Seely, of course—but when I started listing all my favorite invertebrate and small-fin fish dishes to winnow the list down to just one favorite, I realized that I was looking at a top 20, not a top one or two.Let's start with the easiest low-on-the-food-chain delicacy: Dungeness crab. When I think of Seattle's best crab, what comes to mind are two dishes as delicious as they are iconic. Number one, of course, is the Tom Douglas crab cake, last tasted over a pastrami-potato hash at Dahlia Lounge (Steelhead Diner's massive, large-chunk Dungeness cake is a strong runner-up). And the second classic Seattle crab dish I recently fell for is Seven Stars Pepper's Szechuan crab, a heaping platter of coral-red legs stir-fried with crimson peppers, peanuts, and scallions; cracking the carapace with my teeth and sucking out every nugget of silky meat left my lips stinging and hands slippery. No shame there.Second easiest sell: oysters. The 25-cent oyster happy hour at Flying Fish in Belltown (winters only), the 75-cent oyster happy hour (year-round) at West Seattle's Ama Ama, the impeccably presented oyster bonanza at Elliott's Oyster House, fresh oysters with mignonette and a view at Ray's Boathouse—it's not hard to find a proper oyster in this town, no matter how many r's the month has.In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this city is just as much a mecca for bivalves as it is for salmon and halibut. Do you want your mussels, so barely steamed they make marshmallows taste chewy, served in the lightest white-wine broth with leeks and piri-piri peppers (Kirkland's Trellis)? Or do you want them covered in a balsamic-tangy butter sauce studded with sautéed celery and bacon (Place Pigalle in the Pike Place Market)?Two years ago, John Sundstrom's spicy ceviche of crunchy geoduck shavings with avocado, jicama, green chiles, and cilantro at Licorous first showed me how good the West Coast's most disgusting-looking clam could taste, and a trip to Aberdeen last winter to hunt for razor clams (which you can occasionally find, pre-caught, at Opal, Elliott's, and Spring Hill) set me on a clam binge that hasn't quite ended. In Wallingford, Bizzarro Italian Cafe's linguini al vongole, with its flecks of house-cured pancetta and toasty bits of garlic, lingers in my memory, as do the clams with black bean sauce at Yea's Wok in Newcastle, the salty dark blips of fermented soybeans punctuating the sweet clams, which I shelled and ate as greedily as a bowl of pistachios.Two seafood populations that, according to Grascoe, are flourishing thanks to the absence of predators are squid and jellyfish. I've done my part to take over from the sharks by eating the ground pork and black mushroom-stuffed squid at Tamarind Tree in the ID, or the tender sautéed squid with chickpeas and lavender-flavored sausage at Tulio downtown. Jellyfish sometimes comes around on the carts at dim sum restaurants, passed over by uninitiated diners who think it's a pile of boiled noodles. There's absolutely no taste to the transparent, jiggly strips, either, so what you taste is the dressing and a gelatinous crunch; at Chiang's Gourmet, where I last ate jellyfish for breakfast, what I got was sesame oil and pickled cabbage.But the biggest class of fish I would love to see more of in Seattle restaurants are the small oily ones, the rabbits and fieldmice of the ocean. Pickled anchovies imported from Spain have been staples at tapas restaurants for years—Ocho serves them toothpick-speared to a roasted red pepper and a deep-fried artichoke heart, Txori to some olives, peppers, and a slice of bread. A pint of the house-made pickled herring from Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard supplies enough for a couple of afternoons standing over my kitchen counter, piling slices of the translucent, sea-strong fillets on dark rye bread along with tangles of the sweet-tart onions the fish is pickled with.But fresh small fish seem to take more work to find. Sometimes the craving for fishy little fish takes me to Pike Street Fish Fry, where Monica Dimas coats finger-sized smelt in just enough of her thin, lacy batter to cover up the eyes but let the rich flavor through. Sure, it's a slightly stronger one than halibut, otherwise known as chicken breast of the sea, but it's not nearly as whiffy as a walk by the Sound on a hot July day.Sometimes it even brings me to sushi, where I tend to order both saba (common mackerel) and aji (Spanish mackerel from, despite its name, the Gulf of Mexico). Nigiri-fresh, the flavor of the silvery-skinned slab of fish fills the mouth, the oils in the flesh buttery instead of catfoody. The best piece of aji I've had in Seattle was at Nishino last month, where its meaty taste, spiked only with a little grated ginger, made me forget about the hamachi alongside it. You can find mackerel broiled at Japanese restaurants like Maekawa or Tsukushinbo or in a smoked mackerel salad at Joule.The low-on-the-chain fish I've been craving the most are fresh West Coast sardines. In fact, they're the one seafood dish I miss from the Bay Area, where the seafood is nowhere near as good as it is up here. To me, grilled sardines have the same appeal as salmon: They're so full-flavored that when you put them in your mouth you can't think of anything else. In the past month, I've made fruitless trips to Union and Crémant hunting down sardines based on friends' eats reports or online menus that proved out of date. Finally I called Harry Yoshimura at Mutual Fish, who told me he periodically supplied sardines to Lola, Sitka & Spruce, and La Medusa. The latter was where I finally got my fix: slow-cooked chunks of sardine sautéed up with tomatoes, fennel, golden raisins, and black olives and tossed with fat, slippery perciatelli noodles. The sardines wove back and forth through the dish, sometimes an oceanic presence in the nose, then fading behind the fennel and raisins, backing up and deepening their sweet, mild notes.The times are changing, confirms Yoshimura. "With all these high salmon prices, restaurants are always looking for something different, so there's a small rush on small whole fish." One thing customers like me need to know about them, he says, is that, like wild salmon, smaller fish also have their seasons. The intermittent supply creates another kind of cycle—and this one's about as forever as human nature permits: food fads. "You see more and more chefs using one kind of fish," Yoshimura adds, "and by the time everyone else catches on, the season's over. Then it starts all over again."jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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