WEST NEWTON — Michael Leviton arranges fillets of golden alewives over a scoop of ramp remoulade, then drizzles ramp vinaigrette along the plate’s edge at Lumiere, his upscale restaurant recently ranked fifth for top food by Zagat Boston. The humble alewife, a fish so pedestrian it is used as lobster bait, has been elevated. It will be featured next week at a $60 per person dinner.
Until the turn of the last century, alewives were a diet staple in many coastal communities, and a measure of the ecological health of waterways. Today, alewives can be commercially fished only along the Eastern Seaboard in Maine.
Alewives and the other unconventional seafood on the Lumiere menu are part of an “Eating With the Ecosystem” program from Rhode Island, aimed at educating diners about preserving marine ecosystems. Lumiere is among five local restaurants celebrating seafood from the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Southern New England waters. Leviton’s menu will also include sake-poached monkfish liver and white hake.
Sarah Schumann, a fisherman and environmentalist from Warren, R.I., created “Eating With the Ecosystem” last year as a way to unite chefs, diners, fishermen, and scientists in nurturing biodiversity in marine waterways. Schumann says consumers can help this effort by “embracing what the ocean has to offer” and not just buying cod, flounder, and tuna. “The way ‘sustainable seafood’ is usually used, to refer to specific products, ignores the broader context affecting the ability of marine ecosystems to regenerate edible fish products for human consumption,” writes Schumann, who holds degrees in marine affairs and environmental policy, in an e-mail. That context, she says, includes the impact of climate change, pollution, coastal habitat degradation, and the need to make fishing viable for small-scale fishermen.
There have been other efforts raising awareness about eating lesser-known fish. Chefs Collaborative, which Leviton chairs, hosted a successful “Trash Fish Dinner” event at Leviton’s Area Four restaurant in Cambridge last March. The meal featured dogfish, blood cockles, and pollock. Last Saturday, the Second Annual Boston Seafood Festival in the Seaport District addressed seafood sustainability.
What distinguishes “Eating With the Ecosystem” dinners is the participation of scientists and fishermen. Earlier this year, meals were held at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, and Nourish in Lexington. The Lumiere event will feature Jeffrey Pierce, a commercial alewife harvester who helped restore the industry in Maine, and Jake Kritzer, a marine scientist with the Boston branch of the Environmental Defense Fund. Each is passionate about the alewife, also known as river herring, which grows only 10 to 11 inches long, weighing about one-half pound.
Kritzer says alewives are remarkable because they travel between two ecosystems to spawn, from the ocean to rivers and ponds. “Their numbers are not just affected by overfishing, like cod,” he says, but affected as well by “dams, water quality, and invasive species. Alewives really force you to think of the ecosystem in a broad perspective rather than narrow in on fishing.”
Pierce calls alewives “a substantive fish” despite their size. “They have a lot of Omega 3. They’re super good for your health,” he says. “They can be smoked, canned, and pickled. They taste like mackerel. They’re great on the grill but they’re best fried.”
Leviton opted to fry his alewives. He dredged them in heavy cream mixed with egg yolks to increase the stickiness for breading, so the fine fish bones would melt during pan frying. “I hate that this type of dinner gets seen as elitist. I hope people look more deeply at this issue,” he says. “The only way we’re going to achieve substantive change is by getting representatives from all stake holders — all the different voices — in the room so that people feel heard and cared about.”
Michele Marquez attended one of the dinners earlier this year and, as a result, modified her seafood eating. “The real value of an ‘Eating With the Ecosystem’ dinner is in the first-hand contact with scientists and fisherman,” she writes in an e-mail. “Did you know that monkfish was now a [go-to] eat? That information alone resulted in an immediate change in my [seafood] buying behavior.”
The next “Eating With the Ecosystem” dinner will be held on Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. at Lumiere, 1293 Washington St., West Newton ($60 per person); call 617-244-9199 to reserve. The last dinner this season is on Nov. 4 at 6 p.m., at Tremont 647, 647 Tremont St., Boston ($33 per person); call 617-266-4600 to reserve. Drinks, tax, and gratuities not included in the cost of the meals. For more information on “Eating With the Ecosystem,” go to www.eatingwiththeecosystem.org .