Demand is on the rise for locally caught and sustainable seafood, and more restaurants are doing their best to meet that demand. But there are pros and cons to this laudable effort.
The biggest pros are that the quality and taste of local fish is better, and sustainable seafood helps to ensure the long-term health of each species, as well as the greater aquatic ecosystem. Using as-local-as-possible seafood also helps support local fishermen.
“It gives a sense of community,” said Jim Dietz, owner of Joe Fish Seafood Restaurant & Bar in North Andover and North Reading. “I’m supporting families like my own.”
But there are some drawbacks, too.
“Locally sourced product is usually in a higher price range due to the smaller size of the companies,” said Michael Warman, executive chef at Surf Restaurant in Nashua and Portsmouth, N.H. “The second challenge [is] the ability to source a product with consistent availability and quality.”
To appreciate the benefits, diners can visit the North Andover Joe Fish. Eighty percent of Dietz’s restaurants’ seafood is caught as locally as possible — from the Carolinas to Maine, up to 100 miles offshore — and the restaurant’s extensive menu includes everything from oysters to haddock to crabmeat.
“You can’t fool fresh fish with the New Englanders. . . .They know their seafood,” Dietz said.
A meal at Joe Fish should begin with a crab cake ($16), described as “the best crab cake EVAH.” The rightly described appetizer is a traditional Maryland-style crab cake made with jumbo lump crabmeat — and thankfully, very little mayonnaise — and drizzled with a tangy mustard sauce, all served atop a bed of vibrant, crunchy vegetables. The thick crab cake was large enough to be shared by two people.
One of the three types of oysters available on the raw bar menu that night was Scorton Creek, from Cape Cod. Each oyster costs $2.50, and the briny mollusks were served with a spicy horseradish sauce. The cold salt water each oyster held onto was a welcome addition to every slurp, making for an ideal, fresh start to this seafood-laden meal.
Dinner entrees at Joe Fish include familiar fried and grilled seafood dishes, as well as Maine lobster served seven ways. (The more casual lunch menu features several sandwiches and fish tacos, which also grace the dinner menu.)
But the star of the menu is any dish that includes the sustainable and very local redfish (or ocean perch). This fish is served in several dishes, but the one that comes highly recommended is the redefined fish and chips ($16). This take on the traditional dish consists of tender, incredibly flaky fish that’s deep-fried in a surprisingly light and crispy Samuel Adams beer batter. The fish is served with addictive garlic and Parmesan roasted potatoes, as well as a crunchy and nicely dressed cole slaw. For dipping, Joe Fish’s San Diego sauce (studded with fresh dill) and wasabi aïoli are served on the side, and the fish itself is drizzled with a smoky chipotle pepper aïoli.
Another entree worth digging into is the haddock Maria ($20), featuring a haddock filet coated in panko crumbs and served atop sautéed mushrooms, juicy grape tomatoes, and artichoke hearts. Everything swims in a white wine, lemon, and caper sauce and is served over rice pilaf and finished with an ideal amount of Parmesan cheese.
The haddock — caught in the North Atlantic — was wonderfully flaky and well seasoned, and the dish as a whole was full of varying textures and flavors that complemented one another well. I longed for a bit more black pepper, thanks to the salt from the capers and cheese, but everything else on the plate was spot-on.
Although the local, fresh seafood at Joe Fish made for an impressive meal, Dietz — like many other New England chefs and restaurateurs — faces challenges when it comes to sourcing seafood locally.
Warman’s menus also are locally oriented; about 70 percent of the dishes feature seafood from the North Atlantic, which mostly includes the Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine, and Grand Banks areas. Warman also gets some of his seafood from Portsmouth, N.H., Gloucester, Boston, and New Bedford.
To help cut down on the costs, his restaurants will often feature more locally harvested and sometimes underutilized seafood in their daily specials, such as Gulf of Maine redfish, hake, and locally farmed steelhead trout.
“While some of our purveyors that bring in fish from the larger markets can give pretty standard pricing throughout a season, the smaller, local boats are more susceptible to weather and other variables,” Warman said. “I would estimate that some of the locally landed fish [brought into Portsmouth] is around 10 to 15 percent higher than some of the fish brought into the Gloucester, Boston, or New Bedford auctions.”
Although Warman is passionate about supporting local fishermen, he’s also aware of the realistic implications on the fishing industry itself.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, the way I look at it . . . to support the local fishing community is great for the local community, but without the proper controls in place,” overfishing is a threat and the local fishing industry won’t be able to sustain itself for future generations, Warman said.
Jeff Cala, executive chef for the Serenitee Restaurant Group (which includes Latitude 43 Restaurant and Bar in Gloucester), echoes Warman’s concerns — especially when it comes to the fishing industry in his backyard. Because of government regulations on catch limits, the volume for fishing boats in Gloucester is down 50 to 70 percent since Latitude 43 opened seven years ago.
“They’re not letting these guys fish,” Cala said. “There are a lot of people out of work.”
In an effort to help the local fishermen, Latitude 43 holds special events — like the recent seafood throwdown held with Turner’s Seafood — and gives 10 to 20 percent of the profits back to the local industry. When possible, Cala also tries to use underutilized fish that’s abundant in Gloucester waters, such as monkfish, redfish, pollock, and catfish.
Despite the strict regulations put on these fishermen, Warman is hopeful that the local fishing industry will benefit from the restrictions.
“I really feel that in the long term it will help the local fisheries, by causing the surviving companies to fish in a more ecologically sustainable manner, and ensure the sustained health to the ecosystem,” Warman said.
Joe Fish Seafood Restaurant & Bar
1120 Osgood St., North Andover
60 Main St., North Reading
99 Bow St., Portsmouth, N.H.
207 Main St., Nashua
Latitude 43 Restaurant & Bar
25 Rogers St., Gloucester
Michelle Lahey is a professional chef who writes about food on her blog www.theeconomicaleater.com.