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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
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
"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
"I'd never do that any differently," explains Adair.
"Because seafood is such a perishable product, and the chefs
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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