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In the Kitchen: ‘Wild’ and ‘local’ head Brigantine’s seafood specs

Freshness is key to success for growing, multi-concept company

Cioppino showcases the variety and quality of seafood
    in Brigantine's kitchen. - Photo courtesy of Brigantine Seafood
    Restaurants
By Joan M. Lang
September 01, 2006

When you go to all the time and trouble to purchase excellent fish, handling and preparation become even more critical. Mark Adair, the executive chef of San Diego's Brigantine Restaurant Group, figures he spends about 50 percent of his time purchasing seafood for 11 restaurants representing four different concepts.

There are 11 BRG restaurants: six Brigantine Seafood Restaur­ants; the flagship, Azul, offering California cuisine; and two Mexican concepts, Miguel's Cocina, with three locations, and Zocalo Grill. Collec­tively, seafood sales run about $20 million annually, or 60 percent of the total mix.

Although they buy from local vendors, Adair and the chefs at the individual restaurants work with dozens of different sources. Wild-caught Mexi­can shrimp, oysters from British Co­lumbia or Oregon, Hawaiian snapper and salmon and halibut from Alaska are part of the diverse product range.

Adair has a preference for product from the Pacific side of the globe.

"I rarely get seafood from the At­lantic," he says. "I understand that transportation is getting better, but I lean toward local first."

And if he can get wild-caught product, he does.

"I prefer Alaska salmon to Atlantic salmon, even though fish from the Atlantic is 30 percent cheaper," he says.

If he can't get Alaska salmon, he buys organic farmed fish from Tas­mania, which are raised on the Euro­pean model, with smaller population density and water that is completely filtered every 20 minutes.

The company has been developing its supply sources for many years, since the first Brigantine opened 38 years ago. The list grew when Adair arrived from Hawaii eight years ago with his own Rolodex full of relationships.

About 20 percent of the restaurants' menus represents fresh seafood, plus abundant daily specials. Adair buys certain contracted products, including shrimp, centrally, but the individual chefs do the actual purchasing and have considerable leeway to source and menu within their supervisor's rigorous specs.

"I'd never do that any differently," explains Adair. "Because seafood is such a perishable product, and the chefs are the 
ones who see it first, they need to have the ability to accept or reject 
and replace anything they buy."

Quality is monitored from the time the product comes in the back door.

"It must be the proper temperature, which is recorded on the invoice at receipt, and it must be absolutely as fresh as possible," emphasizes Adair. "We spend a lot of time training on that. We also make sure it's iced down immediately and stored in the coldest part of the walk-in. And we make sure not to over order; we'd rather run out than serve less-than-perfect fish."

Needless to say, waitstaff is key to making sure guests have the best possible experience.

"They try the specials and re-try regular menu items before every single shift," says Adair. "I've never understood why some restaurants skip that. Yes, it comes at an expense, but it's so worthwhile. Servers who are excited by what they are selling sell more of it."

A lot of care is taken with refrigeration, including many units designed solely for seafood.

Chefs take product temperatures four times a day, which are then logged and made available to Adair - and to the health department - whenever he pops in. Delicate fish like snapper are protected by a layer of muslin between the flesh and the bagged ice; skin-on fish are stored skin side to the ice.

"It's for the same reason that you cook a fish skin-side first, so as not to 'shock' the flesh itself," Adair notes.

"And we make sure we don't have too much product on the line," he says. "We work very closely off projections. Product in a line cooler deteriorates much faster than it does in the walk-in, even a good one."

At the Brigantine Seafood Restaur­ants, sales are driven by familiar species like shrimp, salmon, swordfish, halibut and mahimahi, notes Adair, who characterizes the San Diego market as fairly conservative. Still, the menu at these restaurants includes plenty of inventive preparations, such as the top-selling Grilled Marinated Fresh Swordfish (marinated in soy, lemon and garlic).

At the more casual Miguel's Cocina, the top-selling item is authentic Baja-style fish tacos, a specialty that has achieved cult status in the areas of California closest to Mexico. Adair points out that fish tacos, garnished with crisp shredded cabbage, owe their texture and flavor to Japanese influence. Emigrants from Japan came to the Pacific coast of Mexico, Peru and Brazil in the late 1800s to work the fishing trade.

"It's the original fusion cuisine - tempura-fried local Mexican fish," Adair observes.

Specializing in Baja cuisine, the menu at Miguel's is heavy on seafood, from ceviche and shrimp fajitas and enchiladas to the Calamari Torta, a kind of sandwich. True to Baja form, the food tastes more of lime, tomato, onion, cilantro and other fresh ingredients than of chiles. One of the Miguel's features a large display rotisserie that is used for nontraditional items like Mexican-style baby back ribs and whole roasted fish.

The menu at Zocalo is much more experimental, taking its cues from Central and South Amer­ica, Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as from the regional specialties of Oaxaca and the Yucatan. Menu items include Crispy Tropical Shrimp Sticks (coconut-battered shrimp skewers with sweet pineapple and a mango salsa), Honey-Chipotle-Glazed Salmon and Pepita-Encrusted Mahimahi.

If the Brigantine group has a flagship, it's Azul, a top-rated restaurant with a stunning view of the Pacific. Although the menu changes daily, a typical selection might include Al­mond Tempura Softshell Crab and Avocado Napoleon, Soy-Charred Rare Yellowfin Tuna and Truffle Potato-Crusted King Salmon.

The Brigantine Group is developing several new restaurants, including a second Zocalo Grill and a new Brigantine in Chula Vista, near the Mexican border. And a location in the Carlsbad Hotel is being negotiated that will most likely be two restaurants - Brigantine and Miguel's - with a shared kitchen.

"That's what's so cool about this company," says Adair. "We're always trying something new."

SFlb Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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