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One Man's Opinion - Keeping the menu fresh is a challenge these days
September 01, 2005
So what’s new?” That’s what a friend, the VP of purchasing for a successful restaurant company, asked me late this summer. His chefs were bugging him. They were looking for some new seafood items to put on their menu.
He had been scratching his head for a while, and now he wanted me to scratch mine.
He’s been in his job a long time, so we have some history. Back in the mid-1980s, when farmed salmon from Norway first showed up, some of his Seattle restaurants jumped to put it on the menu.
I was eating at one of his establishments, where the fish was described on the fresh sheet as “Norwegian-Fed King Salmon.” I called him and gave him a hard time.
“First, it’s not king salmon,” I told him. “Second, salmon won’t eat Norwegians.”
That was back in the days when seafood restaurants were just starting to use fresh sheets. A good fresh sheet was essential to show that you were serious about seafood. Almost everything on the sheets was new, and chefs were excited.
Orange roughy, blacktip shark, opah, Chilean sea bass, ahi, mahi, redfish, monkfish, amberjack, marlin — even barracuda started showing up on fresh sheets.
Twenty years later, most of the same fish species are still on menus, and they’re hardly new. So what is new? What’s the next big thing?
Cobia is one fish that’s getting a lot of attention now. Also called ling or king blackfish, cobia have a lot going for them. They grow to almost 10 pounds in less than a year (salmon take up to three years), so the economics look good.
Their meat looks and tastes a lot like mahimahi and they make excellent sashimi.
While cobia is starting to trickle in from a few farms in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, it’ll still be awhile before production is ramped up to the point where it’s widely available.
In the meantime, there aren’t a lot of other new fish on the horizon, I told my friend. He agreed.
But that doesn’t mean chefs and restaurateurs can’t find ways to put new energy into their menus. New, more exotic preparations are one way.
The types of seafood people eat are still highly regionalized, which gives chefs an opportunity to introduce finfish and shellfish species as well as cuisines. This approach has kept the menu interesting for a number of restaurants, including Seattle’s Coastal Kitchen, which features a new regional cuisine and seafood items each month (this August it was Puerto Rican food).
So why not take a chance on softshell clams in Seattle? Fresh Dungeness crab in Boston? Black cod in Miami? Haddock in L.A.?
It’s easy to say that consumers like to stick with the tried and true when it comes to seafood. But that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, and it’s not true today.
All it takes is a bit more work and a lot more imagination.
Finding something new is just not quite as easy as it used to be.