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Trend Watch: Sophisticated palates like their raw seafood Italian-style
Crudo gives sushi a run for its money in upscale eateries from New York to L.A.
April 01, 2005
If crudo could talk, it would owe a mouthful of thanks to sushi, its Japanese-born counterpart that introduced the dining public to raw fish several years ago, unleashing a passion for the product that has continued to this day.
Crudo, which means “raw” in Italian, is a new variation on raw fish that’s being offered at a handful of trendy, upscale restaurants from New York to Los Angeles. Unlike sushi, which is pretty much the same wherever you eat it, despite some regional names, crudo leaves plenty of room for a chef’s creative self-expression.
Crudo is generally dressed with olive oil, lemon and other citrus juices, sea salt and a variety of condiments. There are no hard and fast rules about which species of fish to use for crudo, nor on how to flavor and garnish the dish. As a result, you’re unlikely to find two chefs serving up precisely the same variation of crudo, no matter where you go.
At Neptune Oyster Restaurant in Boston, Chef David Nevins offers only one crudo dish, changing it every fortnight and pricing it between $8 and $15.
“One of the rules I have for my crudo is that I always try to keep it in the form of a salad — appetizer-size,” he says.
In early February, Nevins was serving sea urchin crudo with toasted pita bread salad, hummus and fried chickpeas. His restaurant has been open three months, and this item is “very popular,” he reports.
“We’re trying to keep that dish simple, and keep this one special item as good as possible.”
No one is certain about the actual beginnings of the dish, though New York restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich often get credit for having introduced crudo at their modern Italian seafood restaurant, Esca, which opened five years ago.
Salvatore Marino, chef-owner of Il Grano, a contemporary Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, claims he was the first to offer crudo in North America when he opened his doors six years ago.
While the origins of crudo are murky, what’s certain is that wherever it’s being served, it’s in high demand.
At Cru in New York, chef and partner Shea Gallante has served crudo for the past seven months and uses 12 to 18 varieties of fish at any time to create his renditions.
“I personally use a lot of Japanese fish for crudo, because of its high quality,” he says.
Cru’s crudo dishes consist of any one of several species, including fluke, white albacore tuna, madai, arctic char, sayori, kohada, kisu and a trio of three jackfish: shima-hai, kampachi and hamachi (see Product Spotlight, page 46). They vary in price between $6 and $14.
“Crudo gives people the opportunity to experience the differences between the fish, because in raw state, fish tastes completely different than its cooked-state texture,” says Gallante.
“Each of my crudo dishes is a distinctive, composed plate to complement each different fish. And each dish has its own seasoning, distinctive garnish, its own sauce, olive oil and special salt.”
At Il Grano, Marino estimates that 40 percent of diners order crudo, choosing from four to five offerings on the menu.
“We tried to expand it to nine or 10, but people found that confusing,” he says. “They couldn’t remember the name of each crudo dish, and forgetting what they had the last time is not a good thing.
“So I made it simpler and again reduced it to four to five items.”
Marino believes crudo is popular at his restaurant because his clientele are genuinely curious about trying something new, and also because his servers present the menu correctly, without comparing crudo to sushi. He tries to offer a variety of textures in Il Grano’s crudo dishes by using a shellfish, a white-fleshed fish, a tuna and an oily fish.
Marino’s “Fantasia di Crudo,” the day’s selection in different settings, is priced at $15.
“The difficult part about making crudo is waking up at 5 a.m. to get the best of the best,” says Marino. “You have to look at the shiny skin, the firm guts of the fish, the clear eye.
“You need to go with an open mind to buy the best, not just what’s out there. And you have to have a super-sharp knife, or else you’ll tear the fish.”
Gallante favors crudo for its ease of personalization.
“I see crudo as an opportunity to show my creative vision of food,” he says. “My crudo, for example, is seasoned with some form of acid, salt, olive oil and accompanying garnishes. I’m very serious about crudo, and it’s very important to me.”
David Pasternack, chef-partner at Esca , agrees. “Crudo is much more innovative, interesting and complex than sushi,” he says. “Sushi can be really boring, because it’s exactly the same wherever you go in terms of its ingredients. Crudo, by contrast, is more easy to personalize.”
Pasternack uses fluke, sea bass, tilefish, amberjack, hamachi, razor clams, sea urchins, Nantucket scallops, geoduck, Maine shrimp and other species to prepare his crudo and offers 10 to 15 choices at any one time. The dishes are priced
between $3 and $14 apiece, while a crudo-tasting selection at dinnertime costs $30.
Clearly, crudo is limited only by a chef’s creativity and diners’ curiosity and willingness to try new foods. So move over, sushi. Raw fish has never looked better.