Sunday

Boston Seafood Tour

My family and I took a weekend trip up to Boston recently for the missus' 15th year college reunion.  I've never been the reunion type.  Tony Soprano said it best - "...'remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."  What else can you talk about with someone you occasionally played beer pong with or sat next to in Intro to Western Civ?  They also seem like shameless networking and bragging sessions.  The amount you hear - "So, what do you do?" - is brutal.  "I'm a lead attorney and vice president for DLA Piper."  "In finance right now, but working on a tech start up."  "Tenured professor at Tufts, and we summer on the Cape."  Who knew "summer" could be used as a verb?  I enjoyed throwing people off with my response of "well, I play soccer, eat seafood, garden, hang out with my kid, a lot of Netflix and Phillies baseball."  It was fun watching them squirm to get out "oh, I meant for a living, what do you do for a living?"  And though I had no frame of reference for the former co-eds in their heyday, Joan Cusack's line in Grosse Pointe Blank resonated with me - "I went to my reunion, it was just as if everyone had swelled."  

I'm kidding.  These were my preconceptions of reunions.  I was pleasantly surprised how nice the experience was, and of course am joking on the "swelling" part.  Everyone was lovely, both in appearance and conversation.  I did come to realize that a college reunion is a wonderful chance to get all your friends together in one place, if you can reach a critical mass in attendance.  They're particularly opportune if those friends are strewn about the globe, as was the case here.  And while rubbing elbows on the quad over mediocre tapas and poor deejaying isn't my cup of tea (woohoo! Boston!), I did in fact have a splendid time.       
The 30+ restaurants or markets I'd considered
for my seafood tour of Boston
More importantly, there was a Saturday afternoon interlude in which I could sneak away to explore Boston's seafood scene.  Cape Cod oysters, Ipswich clams, scrod, lobster rolls, and of course, New England clam chowder.  There's certainly no shortage of seafaring history, culture, and cuisine when it comes to Boston.  Unfortunately, the four to five hour window I had couldn't do any of this true justice.  My journey would be more like Paul Revere's in length than Israel Bissell's (definitely check Bissell out if you're not familiar).  I was limited by time, geography, and hours of operation.  Such is life as a parent, and for the brownie points, I'll say "I wouldn't change a thing."  I did some research, consulted some Boston-familiar friends, and put together a respectable mashup of classic, trendy, and eclectic eateries.  Apologies in advance for the innumerable gems omitted from this tour.  So, after hugs and kisses to my almost-napping toddler and eye-on-the-time fiancé, I jumped in a cab and headed to the city. 

Two of Saltie Girl's Four Menus:
Raw Bar and Main
First stop was Saltie Girl in Back Bay.  This place gets busy as ever for Saturday brunches, and since they don't take reservations, I needed to get there early.  Opened in 2016 by Kathy Sidell, Saltie Girl was hyped as a pint-sized 30-seat restaurant hawking Barcelona-inspired seafood, right next to its parent restaurant, MET Back Bay.  It proved so successful that it took over MET Back Bay's space in mid 2020 and more than tripled in size.  Even arriving at 11:15 am, just after they'd opened, the place felt overwhelming.  Scores of patrons in the street, patio, bar, upstairs and downstairs 
dining rooms.  Dozens of staff scurrying around with smoked salmon benedicts and fried lobster & waffles.  I nestled into a corner seat at the bar, and I swear, the bartender averaged making ten Bloody Marys a minute my entire meal. 

Fried Clams, Raw Platter
Live Rokke Scallop Crudo 
Being busy definitely isn't a bad thing for a restaurant, nor its guests 
necessarily.  But when that carries over to the menus, it can be.  Nothing looked bad, it was just too much and again, overwhelming.  Toasts, crudos, oysters, tartares, pastas, sashimi, terrines, burgers, caviar, fried fish.  Overkill, literally.  I was originally keen on ordering some tinned seafood (more on that later), but that menu was 100 items alone.  And beyond those tins, nothing really struck me as Catalan, as Saltie Girl was originally branded.  I decided on a modest mix of dishes.  I had to save room for the rest of the tour, but wanted a good representation.  Some raw, some crudo, some fried, some fancy.  I ordered three different oysters, a top neck clam, and a Jonah crab claw.  Seeing Jonah crab on menus excites me.  It was largely ignored when I was growing up on the East coast, deemed as inferior to the blue crab or lobster, and often considered by-catch or a nuisance. However, regulations and over-fishing of other species have seen the Jonah crab's popularity grow.  And it's quite delicious, kind of like a poor man's Dungeness crab.  As for the oysters, unfortunately all were a bit lean and bland.  It was the summer, a poor oyster season, so I couldn't expect top quality or hold that against them.  They were a little butchered and bellied in their shucking, though.

Foie Gras & BBQ Eel
(Unagi) Toast
The fried Ipswich clam bellies didn't disappoint.  Crunchy, salty, and slightly sweet with that intertidal gaminess only clams have.  The intoxicating aroma of fried clams alone is enough reason to order them.  Ipswich clams, more crassly known as piss clams, are rarely found outside of New England.  If they aren't on your Boston culinary bucket list, right next to chowder and lobster roll, you've got some reassessing to do.  The
 scallop crudo with green garlic sauce was clean, refreshing, and pretty decent.  What impressed, though, was the seared foie gras & BBQ eel toast with sesame and shisho.  I have a mixed relationship with foie gras, I'll admit, in that it feels both over and under appreciated.  There's a pervasive hatred and a counter-culture love of it.  Politics and production methods aside, I overindulged on foie gras while working in the industry as it was always on hand.  It lost its mystique and appeal.  A few years later, having been out of restaurants for some time, I miss it, particularly when seeing the price tags as an average patron.  Either way, it's delicious, and Saltie Girl's pairing with unagi on toast was a delightful bite.  The decadent, fatty foie gras matched the eel's briny sweetness well, and was all illuminated by the bright shiso and Japanese BBQ sauce.  

Overall, Saltie Girl was a perfectly pleasant time with solid food, although not what I imagine the establishment originally set out to be.  That's fine.  Restaurants evolve and cater to their clientele's desires, as they should.  It was little raucous and overwhelming at times, but maybe that's me being old and curmudgeonly.  I just wish I'd been able to dine there in its pre-expansion prime.  I can't be sure, but believe it was a much different experience. 

Seaport seems to constantly
be in development mode
Next stop was Row 34 in Seaport.  The last two decades have seen this neighborhood completely revamped, primarily from the city's Big Dig and billions of dollars in local, state, and federal investment.  Abandoned warehouses and desolate parking lots are now 7-figure lofts and shimmering glass high rises.  It's nice, but almost too nice, like a movie set or something.  Character takes time.  And of course, with luxury development comes hip, new restaurants serving up locally sourced produce, spirits, and seafood.  Ironically, it's this very development that may officially kill the city of Boston's fishing industry by pricing out the commercial anglers at the waterfront pier, but that's another story.  Row 34 was opened in late 2013 through a partnership of James Beard nominated chef Jeremy Sewall and oyster-farmer now oyster-magnate Skip Bennett of Island Creek.  The restaurant's name even comes from an especially prized oyster growth row on Island Creek's farm in Duxbury Bay.  It's got an industrial chic, workingman's feel, but the menus and food are a bit more elevated than your average oyster bar.  

I was meeting an old friend here, so this was my only real chance to go full throttle on a menu of any of the establishments I'd be visiting.  And man, we went pedal to the metal:
Left Going Clockwise - Raw Bar, Raw Oysters,
Smoked & Cured Fish Board, Collar and Whole Fish
  • Raw Oysters 
    • Row 34, Duxbury, MA 
    • Butter & Brine, Narragansett, RI  
    • Farewell Bluff, Damariscotta, ME
  • Smoked & Cured Board
    • Salmon Gravlax
    • Classic Smoked Salmon
    • Bluefish Pâté
    • Salmon Pâté
  • Crispy Fried Island Creek Oysters
  • Baked Oysters w/ Poblano Lime Butter
  • Roasted Amberjack Collar w/ Pistachio Gremolata
  • Grilled Whole Black Sea Bass w/ Corn & Shishito Chimichurri and Cilantro Crema
Their menus were admittedly just shy of Saltie Girl's size and breadth, but they were more focused, more reigned in.  Everything seemed legit and in line.  Mostly continental American with some pan-Latino influence.  They had a raw selection of ten oysters, focused on Cape Cod, with a few from Maine, Rhode Island, and Virginia.  Looking back, the oysters were by far the best shucked and presented of the day.  I expected nothing less from an establishment co-owned by an oyster farmer, after all.  All three we ordered were delectable, especially the Row 34s.  Duxbury Bay oysters always have a savory shellfish or lobster stock finish to them, and the Row 34s delivered this in spades.  I now understand the restaurant's choice in name.

Row 34 not under construction
Photo courtesy of Bentel & Bentel
The smoked & cured fish platter was solid, most notably the salmon "pâté."  It was basically a classic smoked whitefish dip, but hit all the right spots.  My buddy and I have a saying about house smoked fish:  "if it's on the menu, it gets ordered."  I was glad we stuck to the credo here.  The accoutrements with the board felt more like an after thought, but the important parts were on point.  And like smoked fish, if a fish collar is on the menu, it too "gets ordered."  The roasted collar was rich, juicy, and exploding with deep amberjack flavor.  It contrasted well with the sweet pistachios, tart lemon, and sharp garlic of the gremolata.  Just like a t-bone steak or bone-in chicken thighs, fish cooked on the bone always tastes better, whether whole, chops, or portions like the collar.  I really appreciated seeing the same fish throughout the menu being prepared in different parts and ways.  Halibut ceviche, halibut tacos, pan seared halibut cheeks, roasted halibut collars.  Right away, you know Row 34 is bringing in fresh whole fish, butchering, and utilizing every bit.  Economical, sustainable, and delicious all at the same time.  My only regret was not ordering one of the ceviches or crudos, as it seemed they put a lot of thought into those presentations.  Maybe next time when we return for the 20th year college reunion.  Thumbs up to Row 34, either way.  

The Union Oyster House
from Marshall Street
The third stop was an absolute must.  Perhaps not from a culinary perspective, but definitely a historic one.  I headed out of Seaport, across the Congress Street Bridge, and past the Boston Tea Party Museum.  I'm also a bit of an American Revolution nerd, so I would have loved to stop in.  Time was of the essence, though, and Union Oyster House was going to provide plenty of historic representation (with a modest taxation).  Founded in 1826 next to what is now Boston City Hall, Union Oyster House is the oldest continually-operating restaurant in America and a recognized National Landmark.  The building itself predates the restaurant by over a century, having previously been a dry goods and clothing store.  It housed a printing press for The Massachusetts Spy, a 1770s pro-American Revolution newspaper, and was briefly the residence of then-exiled Louis Phillipe, who later became King of France.  Since its inception as a restaurant, originally named Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, countless celebrities, politicians, and tycoons have dined at the establishment.  There's even a booth named after President John F. Kennedy, where he frequently enjoyed many a libation and oyster.

I didn't even catch which were "Rhode
Island" and which were "Connecticut"
I grabbed a seat at the original 1826 semi-circular oak oyster bar.  It's so old and weathered that there's a slight decline in the bar top, towards your lap.  One end of each platter actually needs to be propped on coasters when served.  Anachronistically charming as hell.  As for the menu, it had a bit of a "don't tread on me" attitude.  If it's working, why change it?  By no means was anything cutting edge, and even teetered on tourist-trappy.  Crab cakes, lobster rolls, crumbed Boston scrod, fried seafood and of course, chowder, which they've reportedly been serving since the 1840s.  But sometimes, the classics are classics for a reason, and I respect that.  Ye Olde Union Oyster House is, after all, a historic landmark, and the food reflects this.  

What I most enjoyed were the oyster listings - just "oysters - 1/2 dozen or dozen - market price."  I asked the shucker what oysters they had, and he responded "Good oysters.  One's from Rhode Island and the other's from Connecticut."  The simplicity was honestly kind of refreshing.  No "bottom cultivated, three years to harvest Royal Captain's Cups - bright brine with slight notes of brassica."  While I certainly value, even advocate for the high brow oyster sommelier presentation, there was something nice about "Rhode Island or Connecticut, what do you want?"  Both were well shucked and tasty, as was the chowder.  I went into Union Oyster House kind of knowing exactly what to expect.  Nothing mind blowing or showstopping in terms of cuisine.  What I did expect, and got, was a satisfying glimpse into colonial Boston with a heaping plate of history.  The oysters and "cuppa chowdah" on the side were great too.        

On to the final stop, but I first wanted to circle back to the aforementioned tinned seafood.  Quality tinned seafood is both literally and figuratively foreign to the US.  Starkist skipjack tuna or Bumble Bee pink salmon typically come to mind first when we hear "canned seafood," and they're most frequently reserved for budget conscious casseroles or sandwiches.  Don't get me wrong.  I've enjoyed a decent tuna salad sandwich here and there.  But most of these products fall closer to the cat food rather than caliber side of the culinary spectrum.  You'd be hard pressed to find Chicken-of-the-Sea celebrated at any established eatery.  Shit, our expectations for these products are so low that Subway fooled us for years by passing off even worse products as "canned tuna."  

However, across the pond, largely in Portugal and Spain, a variety of tinned seafoods or conservas have long been treasured as oceanic delicacies.  Most canned fish products in American markets are high volume, lower quality catches that are butchered, steamed, packed in water or vegetable oil, preserved and sold as economical staples.  Abroad, there's a bit more artistry to it.  Entire stores and restaurants are dedicated solely to curated tinned goods. Seafood preservation isn't just to sustain edibility, but a way to highlight or amplify desired characteristics.  Preservers employ nuanced techniques to elicit the best textures and flavors.  Pungent anchovies and sardines are cured, then seasoned and immersed in vinaigrettes.  Rare bivalves are mildly treated and packed at peak freshness to maintain their prized taste.  Tuna belly is charcoal grilled and preserved in rich, velvety oils.  It goes on, but to say the least, the Iberians and other Europeans take their tinned seafood much more seriously than we do/have.  A few vestiges of colonialism might have been nice to keep post-Revolution, in this instance at least.  Luckily, it's started to catch on in the States in the last few years.  And Boston, with its large Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrant populations and influences, is a perfect starting point.      

haley.henry's front window
This is where haley.henry entered.  Well, after some wayward wandering around downtown first.  As they're centuries old, Boston's streets are not laid out in any discernible grid or pattern.  It's easy to get lost or turned around in what felt like a live action game of Chutes and Ladders.  After a few loops, I finally arrived at my destination.  Opened in 2016 by veteran sommelier Haley Fortier, haley.henry is an unassuming neighborhood wine bar in Downtown Crossing.  It's focused on natural wines, tinned fish, crudos, charcuterie, and hip hop.  Yes, hip hop.  The menu even whimsically pays tribute to hip hop favorites with à la carte categories like "bone thugs & charcuterie" or "biggie small plates."  As soon as I walked into an open kitchen behind a warm wooden bar and a congenial staff with Ghostface Killah playing in the background, I knew I'd made the right choice.   

View of the kitchen from
my seat at the bar
I was seated at the bar, right in front of the kitchen.  The bar is only nine seats and the kitchen is, at best, a compact 5 x 15 feet.  Talk about being packed in like sardines, am I right?!  Impressive they're able to execute quality from such a modest space.  I most admired their inventive use of the limited area and equipment; one of the cooks was reducing something in a sauce pan on the panini press.  Respect.  The menus were just as advertised on the front window.  An erudite listing of wines and beers, some salty and pickley starters, meat & cheese boards, crudos, and tinned fish.  As you can imagine, I was there for the latter.  And while I highly praise artisanally preserved seafood, I'm most definitely a novice to the wide array of choices.  The GM of the restaurant more than willingly spent several minutes chatting with me and detailing the selection.  

I landed on three tins - Icelandic cod liver in its own oil; Portuguese calamari tubes stuffed with tentacles and rice, preserved in a tomato ragout; and Portuguese steamed mussels in escabeche.  All were served with toasted bread, red onion, mixed herbs, lemon, and of course, Ruffles.  It takes balls to present a $22 tin of fish next to a bag of 50¢ potato chips and say "trust me, this is best."  But shit, they were right.  Each tin was great.  The mussels were full of that vinegary, smokey paprika, garlic forward flavor a classic escabeche delivers.  The calamari tubes were delightful, like tiny seafood seafood sausages in salty tomato sauce.  As for the cod liver, absolute next level.  I know cod liver oil has had some not so pleasant connotations in our culture.  I always picture poor little Johnny being force-fed a spoonful before he's allowed to watch Howdy Doody or go shoot marbles.  That stuff is fermented and choked down for health purposes, and I believe constitutes child abuse nowadays.  This tin of cod liver, however, was incredible.  It was mild yet luscious and spread on toast like warm butter.  The GM was dead on with "it's the foie gras of the sea."  With a touch of salt and a squeeze of lemon, I can't think of many better bites I had the entire weekend.  I even peer-pressured a couple dining next to me to try some.  They agreed.  I only wish I could have tried a few more tins from the menu, as the three recommendations I had were great.  Again, 20th year college reunion, here I come.     

Left to Right - Minnow Cod Liver in Oil, Da Morgada Stuffed Calamari in Ragout,
Da Morgada Mussels in Escabeche 
Whereas Saltie Girl's tinned fish list was over 100 items that I doubt more than a few staff members could knowledgeably speak to, haley.henry's was carefully and resolutely selected.  Anyone can order the gamut of Iberian canned goods from their regional wholesaler.  Boasting the widest selection of something is not always a good thing.  Believe me, I did it with oysters as a raw bar manager, and the quality and connection with the guests suffered.  haley.henry is hitting the tinned seafood experience right in the sweet spot.  It's not often I'm awestruck by what a restaurant is doing, but I can truly say I felt that here.  The food, music, ambiance, staff, and conversation were all some of the best I've had in years.  They succeed in humbly selling their experience with and passion for novel wines and cuisine.  They strike a delicate balance of fun and educational dining while eschewing even the slightest hint of arrogance or condescension.  As the owner put it, "we don't take ourselves too seriously."  It's hard to with menu categories like "Missy Shell-iot," sides of Ruffles potato chips, and even Weiner Wednesdays.  But I can assure you, haley.henry does in fact take their food and drink very seriously, and it shows in the best ways.
      
Although brief, my mini seafood tour was a blast.  I had some great food, learned some intriguing history, and chatted with some amazing and passionate people.  And while I still maintain reunions are not my thing, I am genuinely looking forward to the next one in Boston.  I've only touched the tip of the iceberg in what the city has to offer - just not quality baseball - #GoPhillies. 

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Pastry & Seafood

As you may have noticed from the new header, I moved this past summer from the Bay Area to the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I grew up.  Quite the transition from the trendy, hipster streets of Oakland and San Francisco to the pastoral, colonial themed ways of Willistown Township, Pennsylvania.  I'm pretty excited for the perks of suburban living: bigger home, backyard, tool shed, tree house, tire swing.  But I'd be lying if I said I don't miss the bustling food scenes of urban areas.  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of quality restaurants and markets in the suburbs, and I'm just a 30 minute drive from a booming restaurant scene in Philadelphia .  The accessibility to gardening, fishing, foraging, and hunting in the suburbs more than makes up for any cuisine shortcomings.  Occasionally though, I've caught myself whining "why aren't there any Peruvian roast chicken spots" or "what do you mean the nearest Korean BBQ is 45 mins away?!"  I've even uttered a snide "man, this place is stuck in 2012 with all these gastropubs."  Seriously, every other new restaurant profiled in this January 2022 issue of a local magazine was a beer tasting room or tap house.  Criticizing the community is a great way to reintroduce myself, right?  Figured I'd be transparent on what an asshole I can be when it comes to my culinary expectations.

Largemouth bass from my neighborhood
pond in Chester County, P
A
What most excites me is both the prospect and challenge of new oyster nerd experiences.  When I first moved, I was nervous, knowing I'd become a snobby brat from the abundance of food culture in the Bay Area.  Sure, the Philly suburbs were where my foundation of fish and seafood obsession started.  My childhood was filled with trips to the Jersey Shore, bass fishing in neighborhood ponds or Marsh Creek, and learning how to shuck oysters at Hill's.  But no way the quaintness of Malvern, Pennsylvania could compete with the edible eminence of San Francisco to which I'd become so accustomed.  However, the more I've regained my footing in the Greater Philadelphia area, the more ideas for seafood experiments, exploration, and collaboration have spawned (yep, still grinding out the oyster puns).  I can't wait to splurge on Philadelphia's high-end seafood scene, delve into Chester County trout fishing, and visit some Delaware and South Jersey aquaculture farms.  There are new, progressive organizations like Fishadelphia to check out.  Hell, even Baltimore, Boston, and New York with all their oceanic delights are just a few hours' drive.  And you know I'm going to do a deep dive into one of Philadelphia's most historic and iconic dishes, Snapper Soup.

That being said, it gets cold here.  Like, really cold.  Like fuck-off-I'm-not-going-outside cold.  Taking the climatic Prozac of the Bay Area for the last 10 years has made me a little b*tch when it comes to the weather, but it was 4° Fahrenheit outside as I wrote this.  Come on.  That's cold.  I guess that meant most of my ideas would be back-burnered until spring or summer.  What that also meant, though, was this would be the first proper braising and baking season I'd enjoyed in a long time.  Nothing says "it's winter" as endearingly as a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove top or the aroma of freshly baked Christmas cookies permeating the house.  

David Atherton's Fish Pie from
The Great British Bake Off 

Okay.  I knew I wanted to celebrate the joyous cooking season that an East Coast winter could be.  How best to incorporate seafood or oysters into this?  Yes, I'm aware oysters are at their absolute peak in the winter and there are myriad new and unique ones to try on the East Coast.  In due time.  I was looking for more of a cozy and covid-resurgence-safe indoor project.  Something to enjoy with the family, and braising or baking seemed like a perfect fit.  As for a braise, beyond squid, octopus, and a debatable fish or two, not many good low and slow cooked seafoods came to mind.  Sure, few things are better on a cold night than steamy bowl of chowder or cioppino.  But those felt like old hat and wouldn't occupy all my recently obtained free time thanks to omicron.  That left me with baking.  And while king mackerel muffins or black cod biscotti sound like horrifyingly bad ideas, there might be something to savory, warmth filled and pastry focused seafood dishes.  Binge watching The Great British Bake Off may or may not have played a part in this as well.  

There was one problem.  I'm a shit baker.  Maybe not that bad, but I never took a keen interest or really gave it the old college try.  Without even the most novice of experience in making chocolate cake or apple pie, how the hell was I going to tackle a master task like flaky, well laminated puff pastry?  Luckily, I have a wonderful co-parent and partner in culinary crime, Vanessa, who lives and breathes all things baking.  Girl can make a mean pie crust from scratch while reviewing our mortgage, hosting a Zoom meeting for work, and chasing our son around the kitchen, all at the same time.  With some coaxing, I finally convinced her to participate in my selfishly indulgent baked seafood bonanza.  So, with opulent amounts of butter on hand and a savvy pâtissier by my side, I guess it's: 

Maine Lobster Pot Pie

The Kennebunk Inn Lobster Pot Pie
I love chicken pot pie.  My family actually has a long running tradition of making what can best be described as sympathy or support pot pies.  Serious injury or illness, you get a pot pie.  Loss of a loved one, you get a pot pie.  Welcoming a new baby, you get a pot pie.  Everybody gets a pot pie!  It's a timeless comfort food; a warm, edible hug that says "we're here and thinking of you."  I wanted to start with something simple and identifiable, so a lobster pot pie made perfect sense.  It's a rather common re-imagination of the classic dish, and The Kennebunk Inn in Maine has even received international recognition for theirs.  Celebrity chef Cat Cora called it "the best thing she ever ate" on the namesake Food Network show.

Top left clockwise - Cooked Lobsters,
Filling Prep, Pre-Bake Pot Pies, Shortcrust

After grabbing a few lobsters from Hill's on a chilly Sunday afternoon, we busted out the steaming pot and rolling pin to get started.  Vanessa knocked out her legendary shortcrust pastry: AP flour, kosher salt, butter, ice water, egg, and of course, more butter.  I was expecting her to be slapping, kneading, and all the things associated with dough making.  Pie crust, however, should be handled as little as possible.  Overworking the dough will create gluten and make the final product tough and chewy.  We wanted that flake.  She brought together cold butter and flour as gently as possible til crumbly, worked in the egg and cold water, and formed it all into a ball.  I steamed the lobsters and started cracking away.  Both the shortcrust and the lobster meat went into the fridge for chilling. 

For the pie filling, I'd had a refined lobster chowder of sorts with a slight sweetness in mind.  I evenly cubed up carrots, onions and celery (or brunoised the mirepoix if you're feeling posh).  I also cubed up red potatoes and fennel.  That anise flavor fennel has goes great with lobster.  I sauteed all this on high heat for a few minutes with some grapeseed oil in a dutch oven, then hit it with some cognac to deglaze and bring in that desired sweetness.  Lobster and cognac are another great pairing.  After the alcohol cooked off, I added in some butter and flour to make a light roux, followed by clam juice and heavy cream, then brought it all down to a simmer.  The veggies cooked a little more until al dente and the filling gradually thickened.  Right before it finished, I folded in some peas, parsley, and the lobster, and let it go a few minutes more for the flavors to meld.  Shortcrust rolled out and we were ready for com-pie-lation.

Warren Avenue Lobster Pot Pies
Keeping a little lobster meat and filling left over for snacking, of course, we ended up making four individual serving sized pies.  Two for us, and two for some family members who'd recently tested positive for the 'vid.  Like I said, support pot pies are a tradition.  As for ours, light egg wash applied and into a 375° oven for 15-20 minutes.  I also made two claw sized slits in the crust to pop in some lobster claws and fennel fronds at the end, kind of like a classic lamb shank pie presentation.  The final product, quite delicious to say the least.  Admittedly, we started with a layup on this one.  Nailed on pie crust from Vanessa and a surefire lobster chowder all brought together couldn't really fail.  It was warm, crispy, rich, savory, comforting and every other adjective you could tuck into your own personal little pot pie.  Only adjustment I would make is the price of lobster, as this would be an excellent Sunday night staple if the pocketbook allowed.  

Everything Spiced Smoked Salmon Pinwheels

This came to me as a cheeky "when in Rome" approach.  As mentioned before, being in the suburbs kind of feels like being ten years behind the culinary curve.  So, why not embrace that?  Pinwheels are right up there with other anachronistic dishes like stuffed tomatoes, tuna casserole, and egg salad.  You know, like those buffalo chicken pinwheels Carol brings to Nance and Bill's Super Bowl party every year.  They are sooo good, and Carol won't tell anyone the secret ingredient.  Three margaritas later and "shhh...it's a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning."  I'm actually pretty fond of some of these and genuinely believe the tupperware generation doesn't get enough appreciation.  Some are truly terrible, though, so maybe it's just the contrarian in me.  Either way, a puff pastry pinwheel would be a step-above-novice challenge, and while tongue in cheek, should still be delicious. 

Aunt Jo making puff pastry with the 
Poilâne recipe for reference
We were fortunate enough to have an even more veteran baker, my in-law Aunt Jo, visiting at the time.  She's an expert in everything from your standard rough puff to newspaper thin sheets of filo.  We had to employ such experience when making our puff pastry.  Funny thing I started to realize, I was making it through this entire pastry foray without actually making any dough myself.  True pros delegate, no?  Quick reference to Vanessa's good friend's cookbook, Poilâne, and away we went with the kneading and laminating.  Making puff pastry didn't seem the insurmountable task I'd assumed, it's just time consuming and a bit finicky.  It's basically enveloping butter in dough, rolling, folding, and chilling.  Then it's rolling, folding, and chilling.  Again, rolling, folding, and chilling.  Once again, rolling, folding...you get the point.  We then had to wait a full 24 hours before we could actually use the dough.  Not exactly a casual process. 

Salmon Pinwheel Roll
The next day, I mixed up cream cheese, sour cream, parsley, everything spice, lemon juice, and some Sugartown Smoked Specialties salmon.  Go figure there's an award winning smoked seafood company right around the corner from our house, and it's really good.  I guess the 'burbs ain't so bad.  Anyway, I laid out the chilled pastry dough, spread out the mixture, and rolled it up tightly.  After a little more everything spice was sprinkled on the outside, I sliced out fifteen wheels as evenly as possible, added a little egg wash and into a 400° oven they went.  20 minutes later and we had beautifully browned, flaky, smoked salmon pinwheels.  Visually they weren't perfect, but the pastry and salmon mixture tasted amazing.  Our 15 month old even crushed two whole ones on his own.

Willistown Everything Spiced Smoked Salmon Pinwheels
There were some tweaks I'd definitely make on future versions.  I should have whipped the cream cheese longer and flaked the salmon finer for a nicer uniformity and texture, which may have also made a better visual spiral.  Dill would have been preferable to parsley.  I also could have sliced the pinwheels thinner for more suitably sized appetizer bites, but all in all, I was happy.  Due to "taste testing," fifteen quickly became twelve before plating.  And nothing felt more appropriate than presenting them all dolled up with some lemon and parsley garnish on my most ostentatious oyster platter, boomer style.  Watch out, Carol, 'cause I'm coming hard in the paint with everything spiced smoked salmon pinwheels at the March Madness Final Four party.

Steelhead Trout Wellington

Josh Niland's Fish Wellington
Beef Wellingtons are admittedly out of style, but they're making a gradual comeback, or at least should be.  Regardless, they taste great, are always showstoppers, and had everything that I wanted in my seafood pastry coupe de grâce.  Whole fish or loins wrapped in pastry were more common than I'd originally thought.  Various fish en croûte recipes by Gordon Ramsay, Martha StewartJamie Oliver and others were all over the place in my research.  Sydney based chef and avant-garde seafood master Josh Niland makes an impressive one.  As I'd had decent success with guidance from his fish sausage recipe, I decided to use his version as my main reference.  And going for that stunning look, a head on tail on whole fish was a must.

Mediterranean sea bass, also known as branzino or branzini, was my original idea for this approach, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go local.  I'd already had Northeast trap caught lobster and salmon that was locally smoked, so it would be nice to keep the regional theme going.  That meant trout.  Don't get me wrong, branzino is a tasty fish and can be a very sustainable choice depending on how it's farmed.  However, there's something weird about getting plain old sea bass all the way from Europe, especially as the carbon footprint from its 5,000 mile journey seems to negate the ecological benefits.  It's also been annoyingly trendy for the last decade and almost cliché now.  I bet you'd find it on one of those aforementioned suburban gastropub menus.  Sorry, I'm sure they're all very pleasant establishments with great kale caesar salads and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches.

Hudson Valley Steelhead on a Snow Day
I ended up getting a Hudson Valley Fisheries steelhead trout.  A Pacific coast native fish being responsibly farmed in New York felt like an appropriate choice reflecting my own personal transition.  I'd honestly wanted to get a trout from Springcress or Laurel Hill trout farms in Pennsylvania, but driving four to eight hours round trip for one fish was a tough sell.  Hudson Valley simply shipped directly to my doorstep in 24 hours.  I'm pretty anti-Amazon, DoorDash, Blue Apron, etc., but delivery can be a way to directly support sustainable farms around the country and ensure the best quality.  Plus, it kept me out of the cold.

Top left clockwise - Steelhead Butchery,
Pre-Bake Wellington, Duxelles Prep
Fortuitously enough, the steelhead showed up on a snowy Saturday morning.  Perfect timing.  With my fillet knife sharpened and Aunt Jo's puff pastry thawing in the fridge, I went to work preparing the fish for the Wellington.  It was tricky, as I had to fillet one loin off, debone the whole fish, skin it, and keep the head and tail intact.  My fish-mongering was definitely rusty, but with nothing but time on my hands, it ended up working out.  Next, I cooked off a mushroom and spinach duxelles for the stuffing between the fish and pastry.  Bloomsdale spinach, creminis, shallots, garlic, thyme and parsley finely minced and sauteed in butter.  A little cream was added in for an almost paste-like texture to adhere to the fish.  I let this cool and spread it out on a double layer of store bought filo dough.  The filo would act as a barrier to prevent the puff pastry from getting soggy while baking.  We rolled the trout up tightly, let it chill for a few hours to bind and slow the eventual cooking, and then enveloped it with the puff pastry.  Vanessa did some cross hatching to make it all fancy, and into a 425° oven.  The higher temperature would expand the pastry more quickly, adding an insulation barrier to ensure the trout wouldn't overcook before the pastry had fully browned.  Yeah Science!  

Duffy's Cut Steelhead Trout Wellington
Although those 25 minutes felt like an eternity, the result was well worth the wait.  A decadent showstopper indeed, and it tasted great.  The puff pastry was crispy, buttery, and popped with a heavy sprinkle of Maldon sea salt.  Cracklings I'd made from the steelhead skin added a nice crunch on top too.  The trout had a mild, clean yet slightly earthy flavor that was complimented well by the mushroom, garlic, and spinach.  I know many people say saltwater fish are better than freshwater, but I genuinely prefer the latter.  There's a pleasing gaminess to them that most saltwater fish don't have.  When I think of what fish tastes like, it's freshwater like trout, yellow perch, and lake whitefish that first come to mind.  The only issue with the Wellington was the worst possible offense of all - a soggy bottom.  Paul Hollywood would not have approved.  I'm not quite sure what happened.  I could have left too much moisture in the duxelles, may not have used enough filo, or the Pyrex baking dish might not have been the best medium.  I'll try out some different methods in the future. Either way, it wasn't a complete deal breaker.  Vanessa and I had lovely snowy Saturday evening dinner with a bright side salad, and then enjoyed some Great British Bake Off - Holiday Edition.  

Sliced Steelhead Trout Wellington
Overall, our seafood pastry experiments were a success.  We had some quality creations, quality educational experiences, and most importantly, some quality family time together.  However, I won't lie, as much as I love family time and the indoors, I can't wait for spring to arrive and the covid-surge to subside.  Philadelphia has so much seafood culture to offer, explore, and nerd out on - just preferably in above freezing temperatures.  And as much I knock the suburbs, there's tons of wonderful stuff to explore here too.  Please, just ease off the gastropubs and taprooms. I hope you're braving the inclement weather and pandemic with some fun culinary projects of your own.  Whatever you do, keep it crispy.  

  
Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

The Humble Fish Sandwich

As a kid, I always looked forward to Fridays during Lent.  Strange, as there's nothing especially glamorous about Lent.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.  Being raised Irish Catholic, Lent was meant to be a solemn time of discipline, self-reflection, and sacrifice in preparation for Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday.  Not exactly uplifting or exciting.  However, part of that sacrifice was abstaining from meat on Fridays.  And, growing up in relative privilege, that meant every Friday for 40 days we were having one of two things for dinner - cheese pizza or, as I usually hoped, seafood.  We even joked that Lent was a literal godsend for any financially struggling pizza parlors or fish markets. 

In adulthood, I'm not exactly observant of my religious roots.  I more consider myself to be, well, culturally Catholic best describes it.  That's a whole other conversation though.  However, if there's a Friday fish fry or seafood feast to be had, my piety all of the sudden comes rushing back like a true cafeteria Catholic (apologies in advance as this will certainly not be the last bad pun).  Good people coming together for great food should always be blind to creed, belief, and denomination, in my opinion at least.  

With this most recent Lenten season, there was one thing in particular I noticed.  It may have been from an uptick in my TV viewing due to the pandemic, but for some reason, advertising for fast food fish sandwiches seemed to be incessant.  Bearded fishermen in yellow slickers, blaring foghorns, hackneyed sea shanties, and rusty old tugboats were casting out each chain's catch-of-the-day everywhere, guaranteeing with one bite I'd be hooked.  And what's even worse, it actually worked.  They got me.  Volume advertising pays off, I guess.  For the those few weeks I had little else on my mind beyond fried fish sandwiches.

Attempting to research the fish sandwich, I came to realize its history is kind of a murky waters situation.  I mean, any form of fish on bread could be considered a "fish sandwich."  Salmon burgers, tuna melts, catfish po' boys.  Internationally you've got Denmark's smørrebrød, Istanbul's balık ekmek and Northern Germany's fischbrötchen.  Even lox on a bagel could be considered a fish sandwich.  I don't think anyone can genuinely nail down when someone first slapped a piece of fish between two slices of bread.  

McDonald's 1976 Filet-O-Fish Advertisement 
- image and much of the Lou Groen story courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine
That being said, I believe much of our American concept of the fish sandwich is deeply rooted in McDonald's history.  Fish sandwiches were probably eaten around the country long before, but McDonald's really brought them to national prominence over the last half century.  And when most of us hear "fish sandwich," I'd bet the Filet-O-Fish or some iteration is what first, or at least second, comes to mind.  Long story short, in 1961, a McDonald's franchisee in Cincinnati named Lou Groen saw his sales floundering on Fridays due to his location in a predominately Roman Catholic neighborhood.  He noticed a nearby competitor (an older version of Bob's Big Boy actually) having great success with a fish sandwich, and decided to pitch fried halibut with tartar sauce on a bun to McDonald's CEO & Founder Ray Kroc.  Groen's idea was initially spurned, mostly because Kroc wanted to push his own meatless idea of grilled pineapple and cheese called a Hula Burger.  The 60's weren't exactly "woke" times in terms of naming conventions.  Kroc also didn't want his stores "stunk up with the smell of fish."  However, after some market testing, Groen's sandwich was switched to cod, got a piece of cheese added, was labeled the Filet-O-Fish, and sold across all Mickey D's franchises by 1965.  Other food chains followed suit and the fried fish sandwich soon became a nationwide phenomenon.

So, for my own fish sandwich adventure, why not start with the inspirational source?  Both the classic fish sandwich and my current obsession with it were created by the fast food world.  Best to begin with the fast food versions then, right?  
Going clockwise from top left - Carl's Jr.
Popeye's, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's

I won't lie, I eat fast food with some semi-regularity.  Taco Bell nachos hit the spot every once in a while.  Egg McMuffins are delicious.  And Chick-fil-A, well, the hate does unfortunately taste great.  However, this was aggressively on another level: two days, five sandwiches, and eventually, one rather upset tummy.  First, I hit the big three.  Burger King, Wendy's, and of course, McDonald's.  Popeye's was next on the list, as their brand new Cajun Flounder Sandwich had been all the rage.  Ironic, by the way, as Popeye's has publicly bashed "squished fish patties on a bun" for years while advertising their Shrimp Tackle Box.  Who would have guessed that fast food chains, our society's bastions of integrity, would sell out?  Lastly, I finished with Carl's Jr., mostly because it was close by.  I wanted to try Arby's Crispy Fish, but the closest location was a 45 minute drive away.  With a 6-month-old baby boy at home, the decadent days of two hour road trips just for a sandwich are currently on hiatus.  Arby's fish sandwich will have to remain my white whale, for now. 

I didn't want to ramble on, paragraph after paragraph, talking about fast food.  But not providing some breakdown of these five sandwiches would be a disservice.  A table felt most appropriate.  So, in no specific order, here's my truncated analysis:   

Chain

Sandwich

Price sandwich only pre-tax

Pros

Cons

Score



Red Hook Beer Battered Fish Sandwich
Beer Battered Alaskan Pollock, Shredded Lettuce, Tartar, Toasted Plain Bun

 
$5.891

Crispy beer batter crust was a nice texture and best exterior of the five.  Fish was also noticeably flaky.

Most off-putting stale yet squishy bun and wilted lettuce of the bunch.  The fish alone is what saved the sandwich.

 
4/10


The BK Big Fish Sandwich
Panko Breaded Alaskan Pollock, Lettuce, Pickles, Tartar, Butter-Toasted Brioche Bun

 
$3.992

 
It was edible?  Burger King’s pickles are always okay.

Pretty forgettable all around.  Flavorless fish farce with no real texture and the tartar sauce was way too sweet.  Also the wilted lettuce was upsetting.  

 
3/10


Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich
Panko Breaded Alaskan Pollock, Lettuce, Pickles, American Cheese, Tartar, Toasted Plain Bun

 
$4.19

 
Decent in size compared to the other five.  Fish was flavorful on its own.

A little too much going on.  Similar fish farce to BK with no texture, but had flavor.  And cheese on fish sandwiches makes no sense to me at all.

 
4/10


Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Cajun Seasoned AP Flour Dredged Flounder, Pickles, Tartar, Toasted Brioche Bun

 
$3.99

Best seasoned of the five.  Pickles were wonderful.  Flaky and well textured fish. 

It seemed the same dredge recipe as the fried chicken.  So while very flavorful, the flounder’s moisture compromised the crust's integrity.

 
7/10


Filet-O-Fish Sandwich
Wheat Crumb Breaded Alaskan Pollock, American Cheese, Tartar, Steamed Plain Bun

 
$5.191

Steamed bun was very good and a decent, tangy tartar sauce in comparison to the others.

As expected from past experience, fishiest of the five, not in a good way.  Again, cheese on fish?  WTF?  I’ll never get it.

 

NA3

1Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s say the sandwiches cost in the $3.69 to $3.89 range, but there are fluctuations in franchise pricing
2 The BK Big Fish Sandwich is part of the 2 for $5 deal, so you can technically get two fish sandwiches for $5.00 before taxes
3The Filet-O-Fish is its own thing.  And while not good, you know what you’re getting and you kind of like it – like most fast food really  

With the fast food chains out of the way, it was time to move on to the high quality, local fish sandwiches.  Surely, given the Bay Area's acumen for all things culinary, there had to be some great ones.  I began doing my research, and to great disappointment, there really wasn't much.  A few cutty fish fry places here and there, and a very intriguing, but COVID-closed place named Masabaga in Oakland.  Hook Fish Co. in San Francisco and Fish in Sausalito do their spins on a fish sandwich, but not the classic style.  Also, hopefully Masabaga reopens soon because that fried tuna belly 
sandwich with yuzukosho aioli and sesame cracker looks absolutely delightful.  But where were all the others?  Why has the fish sandwich been seemingly reserved to fast food chains?  Just look at the dearth of options on a few, simple, web searches.  Mostly fried chicken spots, delis, or Red Lobster-esque places. 

Looking across the country, there were a couple celebrated versions, but not many.  I sought out a Cuban style one in Miami's Little Havana a year back.  Mainly I just saw other regional fast food chains and their fish sandwiches.  If you know of any legit establishments making them, please share as I've surely missed a few.  I can certainly sell a post-pandemic trip to Charleston, Milwaukee, San Diego or any other city under the auspices of a family vacation.  It'll be our little secret that it's truly for the fish sandwich. 

Masabaga's Tuna Belly Burger - courtesy of
San Francisco Chronicle
After much thought, I still couldn't figure out why the classic fish sandwich wasn't more contemporarily popular.  Sadly, they're overlooked and underappreciated.  But with such great potential for flavor and quality, they shouldn't be.  Maybe because the main association with them is fast food?  Sure, there are some vestigial restaurants from the 1970's around where you can still find one.  You know, those places named "The Rusty Scupper" or "Sindbad's" that have marlins and ships' helms all over the walls.  But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who considers "The Clam Tavern" to be on the cutting edge of what's fashionable in food.  You'll find it as a special at a few trendier places occasionally, especially for the Lenten "fish sandwich season," but rarely as a staple.  And it can't be the health concerns of fried foods.  Fish 'n' chips is as popular as ever.  Plus, we've got the fried chicken sandwich renaissance that's been happening the past few years.  There are the fast food-centric "chicken wars," but we've seen the sandwich's popularity gain significant momentum on the local, celebrity, and high brow chef levels.  In the Bay Area alone we've got FlybirdThe Organic Coup, The Bird, and World Famous HotBoys, not to mention the numerous pop-ups I always hear about.  And there are several celebrity chefs opening up chicken sandwich spots like David Chang's Fuku, Michael Mina's Tokyo Hot Chicken, and Sean Brock's Joyland.  Why isn't the fish sandwich getting any well-deserved love?  Where are all the trendy fish sandwich shops with names like "Port & Hull," "Dock 22," and "Fins or Tails?"  Where's "Crow's Nest Cod Sandwiches" by Jamie Oliver? 

Not quite like the commercials, eh?
I might be onto something here.  Perhaps the fish sandwich will be the next big food craze.  I say fried chicken sandwiches have jumped the shark and it's the humble fish sandwich's time to shine.  Maybe not, but one can always hope.  Either way, I knew I had to try my hand at a homemade fish sandwich.  First though, in attempting my own, the drive-thru fish sandwich escapades had provided a few key takeaways (told you the terrible puns wouldn't stop):

1)  A local, fresh filet of fish.  Pretty obvious one. Those fish stick type mash ups were not pleasant.  A white and flaky yet well textured fish like California halibut or rock fish would probably be best, based on my location.  And being a sustainable fisheries evangelist, no way I could do anything less than a responsibly caught and sourced fish for my sandwich.  Yes, I am aware the five sandwiches I'd just eaten were by no means sustainable, despite what they claim.  Pulling entire schools of pollock with their by-catch from the Bering Sea isn't exactly ecologically friendly.  We're all hypocrites from time to time.  I know I am.  This was in the name of research, at least. 

2)  Beer batter or a slurry for the fish's fried exterior.  Any sort of panko, flour, or bread crumb coating doesn't expand enough to maintain the crunchy texture when adhered to the moisture-filled fish.  Also, the steam produced once between the bun quickly breaks down any crispiness a bread crumb crust may have.  Popeye's sandwich proved both these flaws, whereas Carl's Jr. demonstrated a slurry was the way to go for optimal crunch.  Add "a salt and batter-y" charges to my fish sandwich's rap sheet.  
 
3)  A steamed bun, probably brioche.  Despite the issues with the Filet-O-Fish, the steamed bun was quite enjoyable.  Popeye's bun was also essentially steamed, due to the tin foil packaging it comes in.  A softer bun, produced from steaming, would go well in contrast to the crunchy, craggily fried fish.  The fish, after all, should be the focus, and I wouldn't want to take away from that with crusty French bread or a chewy sourdough.

4)  Pickles only, maybe a slaw.  Again, the steam and moisture from the fish once in the bun break down any fresh toppings like lettuce and they become wilted messes.  Nobody wants that.  Pickles or a vinegary cabbage slaw wouldn't break down from the steam, so they'd hold their texture and add a bright, acidic bite to cut the richness of the fish.  And of course, definitely no damn processed American cheese.    

5)  Light on the sauce.  I will admit I'm not a huge tartar sauce fan to begin with, but all five sauces ranged between mediocre to outright disgusting.  Sweet relish and mayo is just kind of gross from the start.  And the obnoxious drenching that each sandwich got of it was very disheartening.  However, a light coating could compliment well.  This really would be the wild card, too.  I could see a nice tartar-type sauce coming together with fresh cucumber, dill, citrus and some sour cream.  An Old Bay or Cajun aioli could work well, or even a malt vinegar one.  Or perhaps just a dollop of cultured butter.  I wouldn't want the sauce to overtake the fish, but it could definitely amplify the whole sandwich. 

Batter Notes

Well, this was an awful lot to contemplate and execute on my own.  I humbly knew I'd need some help on this project, but was excited to share the process with others.  So I hit up my friends Dana and Rizzi, both buddies from my previous sea foraging adventure, and we planned a good ol' fashion backyard fish fry, masked-up and socially-distanced, of course.  Rizzi, true to his nature, started geeking out on the frying batter.  He got real granular with all the potential flour, starch, and powder combinations.  As owner, chef, and operator of Lou's Takeaway in San Rafael, he's got a modest but commercial kitchen where he started testing all sorts of possibilities.  Just take a look at his preliminary trial notes.  And so many things to consider.  Viscosity, density, best adherence, appropriate leavening agent, optimal browning, proper expansion, gluten development, liquid concentration, and so on.  We chatted about it all week.  

Batter Testing
When the day finally arrived, I intently selected several condiments, seasonings, and sauces from my pantry and fridge.  Claussen's dill pickles, homemade mayonnaise, purple and green cabbage, Athletic Brewery Golden Ale, pickled jalapeños, Old Bay, Four Monk's malt vinegar, and more.  I then headed out to pick up a few key ingredients.  First, freshly baked brioche burger buns from Firebrand Bakery in Oakland.  Next, California halibut and rock fish from Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley.  And lastly, a yuzukosho-inspired Spicy Citrus condiment from INNA Jam in Emeryville.  I'd tried some at my sister's house a while back and thought it might make the perfect tartar sauce replacement when mixed with aioli.  A combination of Meyer lemon and habanero chilis with vinegar, salt and sugar, it's a great compliment to something as simple as grilled chicken thighs or as complicated as homemade Kaiseki dinners.  Give it a try if you can.  I promise you won't be disappointed.  Anyway, with all ingredients in hand, off to Rizzi's house I headed.

Outdoor frying is always preferred
#FrySafe
As soon as Dana got there, we hit the ground running.  Dutch oven filled with soy bean oil, wok 
burner ignited, and candy thermometer positioned.  As we anxiously waited for 340°, I broke down the halibut and rock fish into sandwich sized portions while Rizzi mixed the batter and Dana digitally documented.  Rizzi busted out the metric scale for precision down to the gram, and after a few tests, we ended up on basically two parts pastry flour, one part each potato starch and rice flour, and a teaspoon each of baking powder and kosher salt, all mixed with a cup of golden ale.  Once all set, the fish portions were dredged in rice flour, dipped in the batter, and into the scalding bath they went.  Just a few minutes later, it was sandwich assembly time. 

The Descanso Way Fish Sandwich
Firebrand brioche buns came fresh out of the steamer and received a light spread on both sides of the INNA Jam spicy citrus aioli.  I thick sliced the Claussen's dill pickles and mixed shredded green cabbage with a little bit of the jalapeño pickle brine to make a simple slaw.  The golden crisped halibut and rock fish portions were then placed on the buns and the whole sandwich came together.  It tasted quite delicious, I must say.  Rizzi, admirably ever the perfectionist, saw slight areas for improvement on the batter and frying process, but all in all it was damn good.  Each cooking experience should also be a learning experience.  One can, and always should, try to improve.  However, the sharp acidity and crunch from the pickles and slaw, richness and crispness of the fish, and the spicy brightness from the habanero citrus ailoi, all gently hugged into a soft, steamy brioche bun made for one pleasant sandwich on a warm Sunday afternoon.  The only thing better was the company, of course.  Who knows, maybe we'll look back at this day and say this was when fish sandwich finally started to get its due place at the literal and proverbial table.  I can certainly say it's got its rightful place at mine from now on.

Again, big thanks to Dana for much of the photography and Rizzi for the cooking assist. 

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd