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Behind the line: Loyal local

Executive chef maintains seafood menu items, risks profit

The Harborside Restaurant serves American Pacific Northwest infusion cuisine. - Photo courtesy of Harborside Restaurant
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2011

Looking in from the outside, you might think a restaurant in an upscale, downtown hotel has a ready base of diners from the hotel’s guests. But for the Harborside Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, located inside the Hotel Bellwether on the Bellingham, Wash., waterfront, hotel guests comprise only 5 percent of diners.

“Our biggest challenge is not having a storefront,” says Jason Cross, food and beverage manager. “A lot of people don’t know we’re here, so we have to let our customers speak for us by trying to move people through our food.”

The Harborside, a 100-seat, relaxed-fine-dining restaurant opened in 2000 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To generate more word-of-mouth advertising, Cross and his team host banquets for local companies, hoping to showcase their property and menu. “A lot of locals who come here for those corporate gatherings never knew we existed before,” he says.

Close to half the menu at the Harborside consists of seafood, the majority of it sustainably harvested by Pacific Northwest fishermen, according to Executive Chef Brandon Powell Wild.

Wild received his first fillet knife at the age of 7 and was raised cooking, hunting and mushroom gathering in Wisconsin. At 15 he started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Cape Girardeau, Mo. One day, when a chef failed to show up for work he was recruited to the hot line. At that point, his future in the food industry was sealed.

Wild trained in Missouri, moving up the ladder to sous-chef positions until he arrived at Bellingham’s Harborside Bistro in 2010. Recently, he took the helm as executive chef. “I’m a rustic cook, I like to keep things simple, and that’s why I fell right in with the Italian style of cooking,” he says. “Their’s is good, simple food with a few key, quality ingredients, and I was raised with the idea that the fresher the fish and the more local the beef, the better the quality.”

Harborside features between eight and 10 species of seafood, including Dungeness crab from Bellingham Bay, Taylor Shellfish Farms oysters, Northwest halibut, wild local salmon, scallops, mussels, clams, spot prawns and cod. Purveyors include Grumpy Dan’s Seafood, a local fisherman who sells his catch off the dock in Bellingham, Barlean’s Fishery in the neighboring city of Ferndale, and the Desire Fish Co. and Claus Meats of Bellingham.

“We try to support the local fishermen who make a smaller dent in the oceans, guys just selling fresh, floppin’ fish off the dock, rather than the large commercial operations that are gillnetting,” Wild says. “But the truth is that we’ve already taken fishing too far. My kids will likely never see a 300-pound halibut, and there’s no such thing as 8-ounce scallops anymore. Six years ago I could buy an 80-pound halibut, but this year, most of them weighed between 20 and 40 pounds.”

Wild’s signature seafood dish is pancetta-encrusted scallops, pan seared and served with fresh red pepper pasta, shiitake mushrooms, arugula and pesto sauce. The seafood risotto is another popular dish, as are the crab cakes, which are broiled and accompanied by remoulade, mango papaya salsa and local organic greens.

Wild describes his culinary style as American Pacific Northwest infusion. “A great piece of seafood doesn’t need much added to it to be great.”

Many other ingredients on the menu are just as local. All the vegetables and greens served are local and organic, the bison comes from Twisted S Ranch in Ferndale and the organic chicken is free-range.

While seafood constitutes half the restaurant’s sales, its profit margins are slim, Wild says. “Halibut is really expensive, and so is crab. But we won’t cut our Dungeness crab cakes with panko, we make them with 95 percent crab. So we try to fit our profit margins in elsewhere, from other items such as pasta dishes with chicken, which always run great profit margins. For example our cost on a pasta dish can be as low as 20 percent, while our cost on crab cakes is 40 to 50 percent. An 18-ounce fillet of halibut costs us $10 and we sell it for $28. So before we’ve added any sides to that dish, we’re already looking at a cost of 30 percent.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

October 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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