The more America celebrates its new love affair with fish, the more true fish lovers have to worry about. By true lovers I mean those of us who prized that subtly delicate food long before it was in dietary and fashion favor, and who appreciate many varieties, not just the whitest and the blandest. Undeterred by bones, skin or the sight of the whole animal complete with head and eyes on our plate, we pause only for a squirt of lemon juice before wielding a fish fork and knife.
The problem with the new popularity of fish is that since fish has never been among this country's favorite foods (shellfish is another matter), most recent converts "take" it either like medicine or as penance for gastronomic overindulgence. At least that is what I conclude when I hear my table companions say "I should be good and have fish," or "If I order fish, I can have chocolate cheesecake," or "I'm not very hungry, so I might as well have fish."
None of these comments should bother me, of course, because theoretically I am free to eat my way--but only theoretically, as it increasingly turns out both at home and in restaurants. For when marketing rears its profit-minded head, bad drives out good. If most customers want nonfishy fish in user-friendly fillets, that's what stores stock. Gone from the ice-packed display cases are the whole flounders and flukes. Gone are the heaps of slim, silver whitings. And gone are the cod and halibut "in the round" that can be cut into steaks of various thicknesses or into big chunks for poaching (with the center bone intact to retain juices, flavor and texture)--not to mention the live eels and carp swimming in tanks.
Unless one lives near a really committed fishmonger, such as Citarella in Manhattan, buying these things requires a trek to a neighborhood whose Asian, African, Caribbean or Latino shoppers appreciate inexpensive, flavorful fish and recognize freshness when they sniff it. These shoppers know to look for the rose-red blood of gills and the high and bright eye and to press the flesh to see if it springs back--precautions that are impossible with fillets. Since taking up space with inexpensive fish is not deemed good business, more and more markets in high-rent locations offer only expensive varieties of whole fish: red snapper, pompano, trout and, perhaps, imported Mediterranean mullet or Dover sole.
Restaurateurs not only feature these same crowd pleasers but, mindful of the public's apparently innate preference for beef, develop cuts and preparations that suggest meats. Steaks of fish have been standard for a long time, and when sliced from tuna, swordfish or salmon and seared with grill marks, looking like steak and not tasting overwhelmingly of fish, they are best-sellers. Now there are even-meatier bogus cuts, such as a halibut "T-bone" and a "loin" or "shoulder" of monkfish. One of the biggest hits--already a neoclassic--is the three-and-a-half-inch-thick "swordchop," a huge lump of fish with a piece of the collarbone sticking up, invented by David Burke, the chef at New York City's stylish Park Avenue Cafe, which has procured trademark rights to the name. Each portion is tagged with a number, and some 46,000 have been sold in six and a half years--surely a tribute to Burke's prowess from a clientele whose constant prayer must be "Please, God, don't let it taste like fish."
Similarly, another brilliant Manhattan chef, Michael Romano, caters to the taste of the publishing and advertising regulars at the smartly urbane Union Square Cafe with a three-inch-thick cube called "fillet mignon" of tuna and an eight-ounce, one-and-a-half-inch-thick tuna "burger"--his two best-sellers, he says, "day in, day out."
My objection to such cuts is that their thickness is inappropriate for the correct cooking of fragile fish flesh. Since most of these cuts are grilled or pan-seared, the outside tends to dry out before the center can be properly cooked. To get around that problem, the centers are usually not properly cooked but served rare to medium-rare. (A request for longer cooking generally elicits a small sneer from the waiter.) Although I love raw fish in the form of sushi, sashimi, seviche, herring and the like, I cannot stand warm cooked fish when it is rare to rosy. Raw fish is properly served cold, so that heat does not cause the watery pink juices to rise unappetizingly.
Correctly cooked fish--not overdone to the texture of cotton, as is the American tendency--is pearly and opaque at the center and lifts from the bone cleanly and easily. (The only exception is tuna, which, with the thinnest veneer of searing, may be sliced paper-thin and served rare as faux carpaccio.) Grilling and pan-searing fish flesh to produce a charred, meaty finish is a travesty, obscuring the natural flavor and adding acrid, sometimes stomach-turning, overtones. In classical tradition, fish is cooked over gentle heat; or it is roasted or grilled with the skin on, so that the flesh remains moist and snowy; or it is cooked very briefly over high heat, again with the skin on and coated in a protective dusting of flour, as in sole sautéed à la meunière. My view that the old rules of fish cookery remain valid is a matter of respect not for tradition but for the result.
The other nontraditional way of making fish easy to like is to zap it with herbs, spices, meat glazes and heavy sauces, the ultimate insult being Paul Prudhomme's infamous blackened redfish. Smothering a blood-rare beefsteak with pungent spices and then scorching the surface works wonderfully, but with fish it is an offense that should be indictable.
It is true that the old-style American seafood restaurants, with their Cape Cod decor and their menus of strictly broiled and fried offerings, became a cliché. Still, I have begun to miss the nets, cork floats and anchors as much as I do the simple, perfectly broiled halibut and the lightly and crisply fried flounder fillets these places featured. Fortunately, a few restaurants still take pride in classic fish cookery--notably Aquagrill in New York City, the Tadich Grill in San Francisco and Galatoire's in New Orleans. How welcome their approach seems after meals of fish sauced with a combination of mouth-puckering passion fruit and tarragon syrup or prepared with chèvre or almost any other kind of cheese. The latest wrinkle around Manhattan is fish cooked in goose fat--something I mean to try just as soon as I have eaten goose cooked in fish fat.
Even at Le Bernardin in New York City, surely the world's most lauded and influential mecca of deep-sea cookery, the many lovely, subtle preparations that show off fish at its best are compromised by a few that do exactly the opposite. At a recent dinner there, I sampled two cases in point. One was a loin of monkfish studded with roasted garlic and a mini Christmas tree of resin-scented rosemary, awash in a watery, lemony, basil-flecked pesto. Far worse was an Argentinean tuna steak encrusted with pepper and too much thyme, then overwhelmed by a syrupy sour-sweet sauce of reduced red wine and verjus,then garnished with an intense chimichurri, the thick green herb sauce that goes so well with barbecued meats on the pampas. As if all that weren't enough, the relishlike sauce was topped with dicings of bone marrow. Naturally, a dish so devoid of fishiness was being ordered left and right.
If that's proper fish, I'll take prime rib of beef, rare--and make it a delicately thin English cut, please.
Mimi Sheraton is the former restaurant critic of The New York Times and the author, most recently, of Food Markets of the World (Harry N. Abrams).