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Fish has become the food issue of the decade, as contentious and controversial as farm-raised chicken or foie gras was in the '90s. The doomsayers claim world fisheries are collapsing; environmentalists wring their hands over the damage done to both the Earth and local economies by shrimp and salmon farms; Greenpeace stages activist pranks at Nobu to call attention to the plight of bluefin tuna. Trackers of a continent-sized swirling vortex of plastic in the Pacific Ocean tell us this vastly creepy phenomenon indicates that our marine fish are probably as full of polyethylene as your average recycling bin.
Upper-middle-class shoppers perusing the fish cases at Whole Foods complain how hard it is to keep up with what's in and what's out. Is that cod from the North Sea or the Bering Straits? (Pacific cod = good; Atlantic cod = bad). Was this shrimp raised on a farm in Vietnam or caught wild in Key West? Is it OK to eat swordfish again? What about skate? Can I look a whole grouper in the eye and still feel good about myself?
Here in Florida, we can still enjoy our sustainable population of stone crabs and spiny lobster, our pompano is in fairly good shape, and our little farm-raised clams are as delicious, clean, and environmentally safe as anything dug from a beach on Long Island.
One approaches a seafood restaurant with the same nervousness, clutching one's tattered Monterey Bay Aquarium list of seafood dos and don'ts in one hand and, by the end of the night, a considerably lightened wallet in the other. Fish is scary and expensive. It's more important than ever to find a chef you can place your faith in to do the right thing. I've found one in Anthony Hoff at City Fish Market.
City Fish Market is an outpost of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, which also owns Chops Lobster Bar in Boca Raton. These two restaurants are Buckhead's first foray out of Atlanta, and they run a smooth operation, with a come-hither approach, like the 40 wines under $40 at City Fish. Opened in October of last year, City Fish is more casual than Chops, but it's just as beautiful. There's a great deal of spotless white wood and cool blue fabric in this airy, open space; if you sit inside, you're slightly above the outdoor patios, looking through high windows into the garden. The "market" itself is just inside the front doors, where Scottish salmon and Nantucket bay scallops, Boston lemon sole, and Key West hogfish are for sale (prices average $20 per pound, as low as $9.99 for Gulf mahi and as high as $45 for large lobster tails). Past the market, the raw bar is laid out with clams, oysters, and lobsters, invitingly arranged on ice.
The staff here is as charming as any I've met in a long time, from the valet who remembers you to the hosts in dove-gray suits at the entrance to the enthusiastic servers in pristine white aprons and cotton jackets. There's nothing that soothes a case of guilty liberal jitters like a server who reveres the chef and knows the menu. These do. On our second visit, our waiter, when asked, gave us the rundown on City's fish: It comes in whole and fresh, with the exception of one or two items, like the Dover sole from Holland, which is packed on dry ice. It's cut up in the filleting room that's visible from the entrance and moved quickly in the restaurant and the market. Servers are aware that the window for freshness is narrow; fresh fish gets sold, and when it's sold out, that's it. Some of the less-well-known varieties of our local seafood, like Florida cobia or wahoo, are available only sporadically or during season. Restaurantgoers are still on the learning curve, still opting for the familiar snapper or grouper, and you get the feeling it'll be a long haul to persuade people that they'd really rather eat a more sustainable sardine than a salmon.
Chef Hoff is a Florida boy; he graduated from Johnson and Wales in North Miami and worked as executive sous chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room under Sean Bernal in Miami, where he polished his knowledge and technique in a kitchen that was as persnickety about the freshness and variety of its seafood as this one. At City Fish, the paper menu looks more complicated than it is. The seafood is listed with a check mark next to what's available that day. The provenance is listed as well: softshell crab from Maryland, halibut from Nova Scotia, sea scallops from George's Bank (between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia), Florida swordfish and pompano. All of these are prepared with the utmost simplicity: sautéed or broiled with olive oil and lemon juice, or with brown butter or lemon beurre blanc.
The lobster comes from Maine or South Africa; there are Alaskan King crab legs served steamed and cracked; an oyster bar offers varieties from New Brunswick, Long Island, Blue Hill Bay, and Prince Edward Island. Whole Dover sole from Holland is available at market price (it was $42 the night we dined); you'll find calamari from Maine and mussels from Prince Edward Island. Reading the menu is a lesson in edible marine life.
Every bite of seafood we ate during two visits was lively and pleasant, from a yellowfin tuna tartar, the dewy pink cubes dressed in a mild wasabi crème fraîche ($12.95), to a freeform crab cake filled with a quarter pound of minced shellfish surrounded by a buttery pool of lemon mustard sauce ($13.95). Three King crab fritters ($9.95) were puffs of lacy crust barely held together around dense, sweet crab meat, a caloric nightmare pared with rémoulade and crisp slivers of crab "chips" but a dish that should be on everybody's splurge list along with a blue cheese caesar salad ($7.95) daubed with Point Reyes blue cheese chunks and handfuls of crushed croutons.
We opted for simple entrées: the whole Dover sole, because it has been years since I've had one worth the expense; scallops sautéed Hong Kong-style with scallions and ginger in a sherry soy with jasmine rice ($23.50), and Chatham Bay cod ($22.95) sautéed in olive oil. Cod from Chatham Bay is thicker and sweeter than most cod; it's usually caught on day boats, and the population is still in fairly good shape (I'll be in Chatham by the time you read this and will have further reports on our food blog at CleanPlateCharlie.com). A waiter brought our whole Dover sole to the table before taking it to be filleted. The snowy flesh, dotted with little capers and a flourish of melted butter, was worth every one of those 42 dollars. The scallops had the prettiest butterscotch-colored crust; the cod flaked gently beneath its sheen of butter. An excellent piece of fish doesn't need anything.
A chef who tosses a fillet into a pan and squirts it with lemon juice is showing a hell of a lot of restraint — and beyond the odd Parmesan crust or brandy peppercorn sauce, Hoff simply refuses to show off. He lets his fish just be. He must feel that he's doing enough by sourcing fresh seafood with a sustainable pedigree and seeing that it stays fresh until the last bite has been swallowed. It's a delicate art, not fully appreciated by most of us. But while obstinate bigwigs like Nobu keep serving endangered bluefin, the tide is turning. Hoff and companies like Buckhead Life will be riding the new wave.