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Product Spotlight: Chilean sea bass

MSC certification puts the controversial fish back on the menu

 - Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market
By April Forristall
May 01, 2007

The culinary timeline of Chilean sea bass is a choppy one. One of the most successful introductions of a fish into the North American market, Chilean sea bass went from obscure to omnipresent in just 15 years. The controversy surrounding the finfish has piqued curiosity, making it one of the priciest and most-ordered seafood items on upscale menus.

First harvested off Chile in 1982 and marketed as Patagonian toothfish, Chilean sea bass is considered one of the tastiest fish on the market. It has a distinctive white flesh, even texture, rich buttery flavor and wonderful versatility. Its high fat content makes it difficult to overcook. In the late '90s, diners would be hard pressed to pick up a menu and not come across the deep-ocean species.

In 2001, Bon Appetit named Chilean sea bass its fish of the year. Just one year later, National Environmental Trust and other environmental groups called for a ban on the slow-growing species, asking restaurateurs and consumers alike to "Take A Pass On Chilean Sea Bass" after illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing caused a severe decline in the species' population.

Today, due to the anti-toothfish campaign, chefs from California to New York have removed it from the menu. According to Kendell Seafood President Mike Della Grotta, the campaign prompted a run on the fish, forcing the price up several dollars per pound.

"I think [the campaign] gave Chilean sea bass even more popularity and made the price go higher," says Della Grotta.

It's a classic case of supply and demand, and buyers craving unique fish. Chilean sea bass recently began to reappear on upscale menus with the Marine Stewardship Council certification of the South Georgia Patagonian longline fishery in 2006. Seafood suppliers like Kendell of East Greenwich, R.I., F.W. Bryce of Gloucester, Mass., and Orca Bay Foods of Renton, Wash., have taken to distributing the fish. Orca Bay, which supplies the fish to broadline distributors and chain restaurants, began carrying Chilean sea bass last fall. Kendell Seafoods uses the MSC-certified fishery but also sources the species from various other locations.

Whole Foods Market, which joined NET's campaign in the summer of 1999, brought the species back to its fish counter late last year and Wal-Mart followed suit in January. Both stores only sell fish from the South Georgia fishery.

Is a return to restaurants next? Cameron Mitchell Restaurants based in Columbus, Ohio, stayed away from the fish beginning in 1998 and brought it back in 2001, according to Executive Chef Wayne Schick. Originally sourcing the fish elsewhere, the company switched to solely purchasing from the South Georgia fishery when they learned of the MSC certification.

The two main Cameron Mitchell concepts that market the fish are Mitchell's Fish Market and Mitchell's Ocean Club. Both list Chilean sea bass in their "catch of the day" menu selections, and Mitchell's Ocean Club serves the fish with glazed carrots and champagne truffle sauce for $29. The Broker Restaurant in Denver serves a whole Chilean sea bass flash fried then oven baked with julienne vegetables and teriyaki sauce. Reza's, in Chicago, serves a Chilean sea bass kabob for $24.95, and 3 Seasons in San Francisco serves it with fresh ginger, lily buds and shiitake mushrooms.

 

Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com

 

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