In this week's review of Restaurant Bea, chef Tom Black's cute new comfort food joint in Madrona, I take issue with the menu phrase "blacknose king salmon." While my grumbles might resonate with a select group of ichthyologists and lexicographers, I'm guessing a fair number of readers would consider the complaint far too nitpicky - especially since I enjoyed the fish. Here's why I think it's a concern worth raising:
To recap, Black assigned the name "blacknose king salmon" to a salmon caught in the Quillayute River in early spring. I'd never before encountered the adjective in conjunction with salmon, so I rang up seafood marketer Jon Rowley for a definition. When I told him I had no idea what the word meant, he said, "I'm in the same boat."
"Blacknose is only meaningful to Yup'ik elders on the Yukon," he e-mailed later. "Blacknose kings go to a certain tributary way up river."
But Rowley added that Blacknose kings aren't sold commercially, and there are unlikely to be any Yukon kings on the market this year. He wondered if the menu should have read "blackmouth," a reference to immature Chinook salmon.
Bea co-owner and co-manager Kate Perry confirmed the descriptor had nothing to do with the Yukon or underage Chinooks. "Blacknose" is a kind of catch-all name for salmon, as most salmon noses are black when they return to their home rivers, an indicator of spring," she explained. So appending the word 'blacknose' to a freshly-caught salmon in May is akin to listing a fried two-legged chicken. It's not wrong, but it's far from necessary.
It's also confusing to consumers who are trying to keep their fish straight. Even sustainable seafood experts have trouble keeping track of various fish stocks' fortunes: Throwing off consumers with fanciful names seems at odds with the goal of educating eaters so they can order in ocean-friendly fashion. (To be fair, that's not Black and Perry's stated goal, but it's a cause most Pacific Northwest chefs would endorse.) Eaters who've taken the time to familiarize themselves with fishing grounds and capture methods don't deserve a red herring like 'blacknose.'
According to Rowley, "'Quilliayute king (or chinook)' would have been the appropriate descriptor. Or more precisely 'Quilliayute spring king (or chinook) salmon.' We are in the season for spring chinook, so it probably doesn't need to be said."
Under federal law, certain fish sold in interstate commerce must be sold under their common names: Canned oysters, bonito and catfish are among the species which can't be rechristened by a creative fishmonger or chef. Other fish aren't so tightly regulated, but the Food and Drug Administration has issued guidelines for acceptable market names.
"An acceptable market name fairly represents the identity of the species to U.S. consumers because it is not confusingly similar to the name of another species and because it is not otherwise misleading," an overview prefacing The Seafood List explains. "Vernacular names generally are not acceptable market names and their use as such may result in misbranding."
Vernacular names for King salmon include Tee salmon, Winter salmon and Quinnat salmon. The FDA requires fish sellers to stick to King, Chinook or Spring when describing a Oncorhynchus tshawytscha.
Locally, few restaurants specializing in seafood stop with a species name: Menus typically list a place of origin and indicate whether the salmon was wild-caught. There's a "wild Copper River sockeye" on the menu at Etta's; "wild Yukon Keta" at Elliott's and "fresh wild Copper River King" at Anthony's Pier 66.
Rowley reports he's been on a 20-year "campaign for orderly and precise market nomenclature." For the sake of civilian eaters, who'd like to eat out without feeling cheated or inadvertently destroying the oceans, here's hoping more professional food folks join him.
My full review of Bea -- which really has very little to do with sustainable seafood and menu writing -- is here. And for pictures that speak thousands of words which I won't criticize, check out Joshua Huston's slideshow.