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Behind the Line: Strangers welcome

Houston’s Reef restaurant menus obscure species from the Gulf of Mexico

By Lauren Kramer
November 01, 2012

As a restaurateur, you’re never ready to open your own restaurant, says Bryan Caswell, chef and co-owner of Reef, an upscale-casual seafood eatery in Houston’s midtown. “If you think you have enough experience then you’ve not been around long enough to realize you don’t,” says the 39-year-old. 

A passionate fisherman who learned to catch fish at the age of 8, Caswell had some experience under his belt before he welcomed his first diners at Reef five years ago. He’d received a culinary arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1999, and worked in Barcelona, Spain, before moving back to New York City. There he found work as a chef at Jean Georges in Trump International Hotel & Tower. Over the four years that followed, Caswell moved around the world opening restaurants for Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten that included Dune at The Ocean Club in The Bahamas, Vong in Hong Kong and Bank in Houston.  

It cost $1.3 million to open Reef five years ago, in a building that once housed a car dealership and now can accommodate some 300 diners between its main dining room, bar, outdoor patio and two private dining rooms. 

From the start, Caswell knew he wanted to explore bycatch in the Gulf. 

“I wanted to serve some of the species in the Gulf that people aren’t familiar with,” he explains. “Speaking as a chef and a fisherman, diversity is one of the most amazing things in life. Plus, from a sustainability perspective, I think it’s very important to utilize everything that’s out there and give some of the most frequently used species a bit of a rest.”

Since opening the restaurant he has served 70 different species, among them cobia, bar jack, rainbow runner, almaco jack, African pompano, vermilion snapper, scorpion fish, speckled hind and eight members of the grouper family. Other species such as stingray, bearded brotula, white grunt, jolt head corby and golden croaker have also appeared in various dishes. 

“All these species are a bycatch of grouper and snapper, and a lot of them fishermen gave to their crew as a bonus, but never brought them to market,” he says.  

Seafood constitutes 80 percent of the menu because, “In Texas, I can’t not serve steak and pork chops,” he says. Caswell spends between $12,000 and $15,000 per week on seafood, buying 2,500 pounds of whole fish and filleting it onsite. “We have a glass room where we butcher the fish, and we’re moving fish like nobody’s business,” he says. “Since our prices are so competitive, volume is our best friend.”

His grandmother introduced Caswell to bycatch, known in his youth as “trash fish.” 

“She knew how to make everything taste good,” he recalls. “At Reef, I wanted to serve an updated version of what Gulf Coast seafood means to me, to reflect New Creole cuisine by working with the insane diversity of Houston’s food and culture.” 

Some of those New Creole dishes include jumbo crab cakes served with Taqueria-style pickled vinaigrette, seafood and Andouille sausage gumbo and ceviche with blue crab, orange and a coco-lime broth. 

One of the restaurant’s popular dishes is redfish on the half-shell, a farmed red fish that is filleted with its skin and scale on, grilled, and served skin on with a side of fried macaroni and cheese. “I’m trying to get away from deep-fried food and buttery sauces, though, because people are looking for lighter fare,” he says. Other seafood entrées include roasted grouper, seared scallops, grilled yellowfin tuna and slow-baked salmon. None of the entrées costs more than $30. 

There have been many challenges since the restaurant opened its doors. In 2008 Hurricane Ike left 8 inches of water in Caswell’s building. The BP oil spill also affected Reef. 

“The perception about Gulf seafood was the hardest thing to deal with,” he reflects. The price of shrimp went up 60 percent, but there were some silver linings to the spill, he says. “They closed shrimping for almost a year, which was great for the finfish and fantastic for the snapper!”

The state and condition of wild stocks is a major concern for Caswell. “Even though my world is the Gulf South, the seafood industry is turning into such a commodity-based business worldwide,” he reflects. “We have to develop and implement sustainable and eco-friendly aquaculture because without it there is no hope for our wild stocks.”

He cautions other seafood restaurateurs to understand where their fish comes from and what impact it has in its own environment. “Become aware of how precious our wild stocks are and realize that there is no one go-to source for information as almost every source has some agenda. So you have to read and research extensively, and form your own conclusion.”

One way to conduct that research, Caswell suggests, is to get out on the water and go fishing. 

“I’ve always been a fisherman, long before I ever got behind the stove,” he admits. “My obsession and fascination with being on the water drives me and I try to bring that love to others through my cooking and my restaurant. Usually commercial and recreational fisherman don’t see eye-to-eye, so in a way I’m a walking contradiction. I see both sides.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia  


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