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Behind the Line: Holy City seafood

Coast chef turns to tilapia, salmon for sustainable farmed species

By Lauren Kramer
November 01, 2010

Many restaurants these days are making an effort to menu sustainably harvested seafood where possible. But few are going all the way and offering only sustainably harvested product. Coast Bar & Grill in Charleston, S.C., is one of those few.

"We've partnered with the Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SSI), run by the South Carolina Aquarium, and I'm in constant contact with the director to find out what we can and what we can't serve at Coast," says David Pell, executive chef.

The SSI, designed to promote the use of local and sustainable seafood in Charleston restaurants, has partnered with 49 eateries that have pledged to remove Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, imported shark and other species it deems unsustainable from their menus.

Coast opened in 2002 in what was previously an indigo dye warehouse. With 40-foot ceilings, rustic tin roofs and the atmosphere of an eclectic beach bar, this is a fish-focused restaurant with only two non-seafood items: a chicken dish and ribeye steak. It is one of three restaurants and a catering company operated by Holy City Hospitality (HCH), a company that joined the SSI in 2005.

Pell initially worked at 39 Rue de Jean, a French restaurant owned by HCH, where he began as a line cook and moved up to the role of sous chef. Three years later he was appointed to Coast Bar & Grill.

Pell, a native of Spartanburg, S.C., headed to Paris to attend culinary school, and then worked under French chefs Christian Constant and Yann Plassard for three years before returning to the United States. He was appointed head chef at Coast in 2006, and says that the partnership with SSI, and the company's commitment to sustainably harvested seafood, has been an easy transition.

"Eating sustainably harvested seafood has become so much more important to everyone over the past few years," he says. "Today it's much easier for restaurants to get sustainable seafood than it was in previous years, and guests are willing to pay a bit more for the peace of mind that they're eating the right thing, so it all works out."

Pell has noticed a significant increase in diners' awareness of the importance of sustainable seafood over the past couple of years. "The SSI and the work of our aquarium have made people more aware and concerned, and they're asking more questions about where their seafood comes from," he says.

With the exception of tilapia and salmon, all the seafood on Coast's large, varied menu is wild. Pell sources tilapia from Costa Rica and farmed salmon from Tasmania. For wild product Pell relies on multiple seafood purveyors ranging from large companies to local fishermen in Charleston. In summer, those fishermen supply grouper, tuna and snapper, and when those species aren't available 
(typically January through May) they are replaced with golden tilefish from Florida and vermilion snapper. In the summer months, up to 75 percent of the seafood served at Coast is plied from local waters. In winter, local seafood drops to 40 percent of a menu that features 16 species of seafood at any given time.

"As some species have become more regulated we've been trying to focus more on product from this region, like local shrimp, snapper, grouper, tuna and oysters," says Pell, who cut the number of menu items down by 15 percent when he took the helm of Coast's kitchen. "For example, we used to serve Dungeness crab and snow crab, but today we only serve blue crab in our crab cakes, and stone crab, which are harvested locally in South Carolina. The stone crab is particularly sustainable because it's illegal to harvest the whole crab. They catch the crabs, remove one claw and release the crab, which regenerates the claw within four to six weeks."

One wall at Coast features a wall mural with a map of all the oceans reflecting the restaurant's culinary concept: to use local ingredients for dishes from all over the world. "We do everything from ceviche to bouillabaisse to wood-grilled fish," 
says Pell, whose preferred cooking technique is French.

He puts those techniques into practice daily at Coast, where one of the most popular French-style dishes is braised grouper served over truffled stoneground grits. Another menu favorite is the mixed grill, a variety of seafood prepared over an oak and hickory burning grill, Coast's centerpiece.

"I'd definitely consider featuring more farmed seafood if it was available in a sustainable form. But I've found that some of the farming techniques don't produce as flavorful a fish.

"As the fisheries become more and more regulated, it will be a necessity. As a chef, I'm not against farm-raised fish as long as it is raised in a proper manner and can maintain a good flavor," says Pell.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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