Something Fishy

Last night I came across an interesting article in New York Magazine. After reading the cover story about the insanity of celebrity culture, I turned the page to learn about the relative insanity of the New York City fish trade.

This article talked about the fish suppliers to New York restaurants and city markets and how the business works. It candidly informed me that I, the grocery store consumer and home chef, am basically getting the bottom-of-the-barrel, old, terrible fish that a chef — a real chef – wouldn’t dare touch.

It got me thinking about the (farmed) salmon we grilled the other night and it made me realize I will never experience these amazingly fresh, still-flopping-on-the-way-to-your-table fish described in the article (because they are reserved only for the elite, by way of the fish suppliers and top chefs.) Which I could be OK with except that the chefs interviewed for the article seemed to think that anything else is subpar and practically inedible. Basically, they are saying if you can’t have the top-of-the-line, Ivy League fish, why bother?

If I learned one thing from this article, it’s that I will never have access to truly remarkable fish unless I splurge on a ridiculously-priced meal at one of these chefs’ restaurants. The only saving grace for us mere mortals, apparently, is buying from a big-name fish market like Citarella or Wild Edibles. Though we live across the street from Citarella, we’ve often avoided it and purchased fish at Fairway next door. The fish is cheaper there and we’ve always thought it tasted great. Now, I’m not so sure.

Have we been eating savvier New Yorkers’ castoffs all this time? Is the cute orange and white bag from Citarella and the inflated price truly worth it? Do I have it in me to be a true fish snob?

I’ve decided I must find out.

(To be continued after a Citarella vs. Grocery Store taste test.)

mark, Jul 22 2005 6:17PM

i read something similar in anthony bourdain's book kitchen confidential plus a whole lot of other icky things about our food supply.

also, friends from portland tell me that the salmon we get on the east coast (no matter how high the quality) pales in comparison to what they get in oregon or washington. they won't eat it.

paul, Jul 23 2005 8:15AM

another way to get Ivy League fish,would be to get out your fishing pole and head down to the Hudson river -fish those little Ivy League bastards out of there.

Karl, Jul 24 2005 1:06AM

I can't speak to the quality comparison between eastern & western salmon, but we've certainly got quantity and availability out here in Portland. Salmon burgers, salmon fingers, salmon n' chips, salmon jerky, whatever. But I can't remember the last time I paid for the stuff. Our landlord has a place at the coast and does a lot of fishing. He unloads 4-pound freezer bags of fillets to the tenants when he stops by. A nice perk.

Sandie, Jul 24 2005 12:18PM

Heather...Will you prepare the same dish with 1 fillet from Citarella and 1 from Fairway? I'm curious what you find out!

As a descendant of a long line of fishing enthusiasts, I have learned from my dad & gramps that the best way to keep fish fresh is to put it in a cooler of ice immediately after taking it off the line. It's a slow, cold death for the fish, but much tastier. And if you can clean it and cook it on the shore -- you're in for a delicious treat. ps. I'd avoid fishing in the Hudson.

Ann, Jul 24 2005 11:13PM

A lot of the fish I eat is caught by my dad in SC freshwater...bass, etc. One of my favorite meals with fish is fried fillets with grits and cole slaw.

I read Kitchen Confidential a few years ago...some really interesting insight into the NYC restaurant scene.

mark, Jul 26 2005 2:22PM

sandie - sounds like you are proposing a pepsi challenge; but with fish. will need blindfolds, a large letter 'a' & 'b' and some graph paper to chart the results.

Matthew, Jul 27 2005 1:09PM

A friend of my mother's owns a boat and goes fishing off the coast of NC every other week. Tom and I tagged along with him one day. He is a former commercial fisherman, loves to eat fish, and would never buy fish in a store. He claims that in addition to immediate icing, the fish needs to be properly "bled", which is not done in a production fishing environment.
We didn't have a grocery store comparison, but the yellowfin tuna we grilled that evening was equal to the best restaurant tuna I've had.

sandie, Jul 27 2005 3:57PM

mark, yes! blindfolds, large letters, graph paper and of course a CAMERA. heather... is this possible?

mark, Jul 27 2005 4:30PM

matthew - not that i can't probably guess, but what exactly is involved in 'bleeding' a fish? is it what i think? do i even want to know?

matthew, Jul 28 2005 12:35PM

mark- I don't recall the location of the cuts made, but Jim (boat owner/fisherman) gaffed the tuna (~50lbs) to get it into the boat. A gaff is stainless steel hook, like a pirate's prosthetic hook, but with a t-handle. When the fish settled down enough to approach, he made a precise cut with a fillet knife and hosed it down until it ran clear. I think this contributed to a paler, more beige color of the flesh compared to a more pink color of grocery store tuna.

Riding on Jim's boat gave me a new found appreciation of fish, and the art of fishing.

I feel better about spending more money on wild fish and eating it less often because I know someone went through a significant amount of trouble to get that fish out of the water.

ps ran a story yesterday on the evolution of salmon's place in the culinary world, enumerating some of the differences between farm raised and wild salmon.

We broiled a wild king Alaskan salmon fillet on Monday. It was good. I don't often think of taking pictures of my cooking, but I've been inspired by gutsy and Mark's awesome chicken picture. My comments are too long.

Chris, Aug 2 2005 5:53PM

I fear you are playing with fire. I mean all that can come of this is that you will see that "fish is fish". Soon you will be hanging around the back door of Red Lobster hoping for a sizable leftover that the busboy overlooked. It is important we maintain our illusions as they pertain to the finer things.

Heather, Aug 9 2005 7:12PM

Yes, yes... I'm still planning on the fish taste test. Just haven't been able to get my husband excited about the idea yet. Headed to the SC coast this weekend though, am excited for delicious fish there.