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On the Menu: Detroit-area diners get the best seafood in the world

Matt Prentice's 'source monger' buys nothing but top quality fish and ensures it gets impeccable care.

Prentice's fine-dining operations sell 800 pounds of Hawaiian bigeye tuna each week. - Photo courtesy of Matt Prentice Restaurant Group
By Joan M. Lang
June 01, 2005

When it’s your name that’s on the door, quality becomes really important. That’s certainly the case with the seafood served at any of Matt Prentice’s restaurants. The owner and founder of the eponymous Matt Prentice Restaurant Group in Bingham Hills, Mich., started his career with $200 and a deli in 1980. He now operates a dozen different restaurants in the Detroit area, as well as a 12,000-square-foot artisanal bakery and a number of locally eminent banquet and catering sites.

Northern Lakes Seafood Co. is the flagship concept in a stable that includes four other upscale venues: the Coach Insignia steakhouse; Morels: A Michigan Bistro; No. VI Chop House & Lobster Bar; and Shiraz, a wine-intensive power spot specializing in steaks and Asian-inspired seafood. In addition, there’s the casual Flying Fish Tavern; the Italian bistro Portabella; Milk & Honey, a kosher restaurant; Thunder Bay Brewing; and two high-volume deli concepts. All told, seafood accounts for about $3 million in annual purchases.

Prentice has always taken quality seriously, routinely paying more for ingredients he perceives to be the best, no matter what the category — from fish and shellfish to dairy products and produce. But seafood sourcing took a giant leap forward with the 1997 opening of Northern Lakes, which has a market-fresh menu that changes twice daily. Northern Lakes’ executive chef, Eric Ward, is the company’s “source monger,” according to Prentice, and is on the phone to suppliers from New England to Hawaii daily.

Generally regarded as the best fish house in the Detroit area, Northern Lakes is not the cheapest, as Prentice points out, because of all the care taken with purchasing and handling.

“Quality is everything,” he says, “especially when it comes to seafood.”
For instance, the company buys only Lake Superior whitefish, rather than fish from lakes Michigan or Huron, because Superior’s colder water yields fish that are both thicker and fattier. Mahimahi could be purchased locally for $4 to $5 a pound, but Prentice prefers to pay $14 for dayboat mahi from Florida sources.

“If you’ve never tasted mahi 24 hours out of the water, you’ve never really tasted it. Sweet as candy,” says Prentice.

Sushi-grade tuna, menued in several of the restaurants, is also brought in on dayboats and runs anywhere from $11 to $16 a pound. But Prentice keeps menu prices consistent.

“Once you make the commitment to sell a certain level of quality at a particular price, you have to keep that promise,” says Prentice. “Sometimes we get hurt on costs, and sometimes we don’t. You’ve got to look at the big picture.”

Purchasing is centralized, based on a weekly buying guide that Prentice distributes to all the chefs on Friday morning, detailing pricing and availability around the country. The company works with a number of key suppliers, including M.F. Foley in Boston and Norpac Fisheries in Honolulu.

“But Eric has dozens of other guys he works with, and he’s kind enough to share that information with me so I can pass it on to the other chefs,” says Prentice.

At any given time, the menu at Northern Lakes might feature such fresh-catch items as Klamath River king salmon, Hawaiian swordfish and Alaska halibut, generally available grilled, broiled, blackened, iron seared, baked, steamed, sautéed or buttermilk fried. House specialties include Crab-Stuffed Lemon Sole, Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Hoisin & Miso Glaze, market oysters and the signature Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Sashimi.

Bigeye is served in one form or another in all five fine-dining restaurants — to the tune of 800 pounds a week.
In fact, a number of seafood items can be found in several of the group’s restaurants, including local whitefish (“You can’t not serve it in the Midwest,” asserts Prentice), farm-raised salmon, tuna, shrimp and other staples. That helps the company leverage its purchasing power.

“If you go for top quality, that’s really the only way you have of saving money,” explains Prentice.

Fish is delivered six times a week to each restaurant, where the person in charge checks the temperature with a handheld thermometer before the truck is allowed to leave.

“We’ll turn back anything that’s not to our liking and anything that’s gotten out of the safe-temperature range,” says Prentice. “You can’t mess around with seafood.”

At Northern Lakes, a full time steward checks in the massive number of deliveries that arrive every day.

“We try to get in as many deliveries as possible so our product is not in the house any longer than necessary,” Prentice explains.

The fish is then immediately transferred to the walk-ins; it’s butchered and portioned in the coolers, not out in the warmer temperatures of the kitchen. It’s then laid in drip pans under plastic-bagged ice, even though it likely will be used that very day.

“We don’t have to do that, but we do,” says Prentice. “If you’re going to take the trouble to purchase the best, you might as well handle it correctly, too.”

Over the past few years, the dayboat industry has really changed the quality of fish available to operators, especially in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas, notes Prentice.

“Even Sysco has a dayboat program now, with Honolulu Fish Co.,” says Prentice. “The fish costs more, but it’s really worth it.”

Hawaiian fish in particular, including snapper, ono, opah and other once-exotic species, have become increasingly accessible; since all the chefs order their tuna from Hawaii, they’re also experimenting with some of the other Hawaiian fish. Most of the restaurants, including the more casual ones, feature daily fish specials in order to take advantage of the growing availability of new and interesting species.

Prentice takes considerable pleasure in the fact that he’s introducing conservative Midwesterners, who love their local pickerel and perch above all else, to such products as Florida grouper, wild oysters from the West Coast, diver-caught Eastern scallops and dayboat swordfish from Hawaii.

“We’ve got access to the finest seafood from all over the world,” he says, “and we’re doing very well with it.

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

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