Reading the Fish Bones
I'm not eating any more tuna. That's right. No more blathering in this column about that unctuous piece of bluefin toro I had at Salvatore's Sushi Shack; no more blissed-out descriptions of the perfectly seared slab of big-eye at Bistro du Maison; nix the "ahi tower" or the "tuna tartare"; not another word about the canned albacore-melt at Hero's Diner.
Know what else I'm not eating? Atlantic cod or halibut. Chilean sea bass. Florida grouper. Monkfish. Orange roughy. Atlantic sole. Skate wing. Farmed salmon. Farmed shrimp that comes from anywhere in Asia.
But here's what I am eating, with gusto: a whole raw Spanish mackerel (aji), head and tail intact, the ice-cold alabaster flesh filleted into sashimi. I'm at the newish, modish Blue Fish in Delray Beach, and this lovely little piscine gamine is slender and shiny and — even dead and eviscerated — so graceful-looking that you could imagine it leaping into a slash of sunlight from some pristine sea. It has most of the qualities I'll be demanding of my seafood in months to come. Aji, otherwise known as Spanish mackerel, is neither endangered nor overfished. It isn't harvested by dredging and destroying the fragile ocean floor. It gets bonus points if it comes from the Atlantic Ocean, where it's less likely to be full of mercury than if it were born and raised in the Gulf of Mexico. Most felicitously, its flesh is full of oil, loaded with omega-3s, which I'm told prevent everything from depression to heart disease. Logging in to montereybayaquarium.org's handy Seafood Watch list, I learn that mackerel "mature fairly quickly and spawn prolifically, making them resilient to fishing pressure." Those are magic words.
I'll feel perfectly comfortable, even smug, about eating lots of seafood listed on the menu at the Blue Fish. Apart from the aji, there're sea eel and clam, uni and black cod, Japanese snapper, farmed kampachi from Hawaii, snow crab, crawfish, and scallops.
True, the Blue Fish serves copious quantities of tuna, farmed salmon, King crab, Chilean sea bass, imported farmed shrimp, and other seafood that's either critically endangered or just plain gross. But the Blue Fish isn't exactly alone here. Every sushi restaurant in the country dishes up this stuff; Americans have taken to eating it in quantities that make the Japanese look like parsimonious and ethical epicures. Further, as the Bible admonishes us: Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him which eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him (Romans 14:3), a precept that, if followed scrupulously, would lay to rest a lot of the animosity between carnivores and vegans.
I personally have no intention of following the Good Book's advice when it comes to food – I'd be obliged to give up lobster thermador and pork bellies, for God's sake — but this is a restaurant review, so let's turn our attention to the actual restaurant for a minute. The Blue Fish comes to us as the first outlier of a small chain of Texas sushi restaurants founded in Dallas in 1995. Dallas? Those landlocked Texans eat raw fish? Blue Fish earned some attention for its L.A.-stylin' factor and what originally looked like a good selection of sakes, all of which seemed a lot hipper 13 years ago. And the atmosphere at the Blue Fish is still working on the principle that we prefer to pick at our ahi towers while listening to trance music and that hostesses are best when they resemble elongated versions of Tyra Banks.
Blue Fish Delray is the company's first venture beyond the Lone Star state, and you have to applaud the iron-clad cojones in the location they've chosen. This jinxed, curséd spot at 110 E. Atlantic Ave. has sent one restaurant after another spiraling down the tubes — first Sopra, then Bice — places that ought to have done well. It's a pretty space with a cool little staircase that arcs over a pool outside, and a humongous indoor cavern broken into manageable parts: a bar, a sushi bar, a smaller room with a wall of windows, a larger room fit for ogling your fellows. Past failures here evidently had a lot more to do with mismanagement than with the acoustics.
Disappointed posters on chowhound's Florida board wrote scathingly of the Blue Fish when it first opened. Word about the sushi: "Inedible." I didn't find this to be the case during two visits, but I do think you need to choose your fish wisely if you go. The salmon was nearly inedible — mushy and greasy and of very poor quality. But a black cod special grilled with miso was delicious, with a sweetish, carmelized crust set against an interior that melted in our mouths (and yes, black cod is a "good" fish). We had a splendid selection of sushi, exactingly chosen from a big menu of raw fish, all of it cold, bursting with flavor. Sea eel ($5 for two), an animal not always found at your local sushi dive (the sustainably farmed saltwater eel is called anago; the more common freshwater eel, unagi), was served just slightly cooked after blanching and lightly brushed with sweetened soy. We ordered luscious uni (a pair for $9.95, the pudding-like, musky gonads of sea urchin) topped with a couple of raw quail eggs ($1 each); creamy, glistening slices of kampachi over vinegared rice ($3.75 apiece); toothsome octopus ($2.25) sliced thin and blushing at the margins like wild roses; and silvery pink sea bream (tai sushi, $3.75). On both our visits, a slightly bemused manager stopped by our table and expressed surprise over our unconventional order.
Unconventional is the operative way to go here. The carcass of our whole aji, picked clean of meat, was taken away, flash-fried, and returned to our table so we could snack on the salty, crunchy bones, head, and tail. Here was a new experience for me, made all the more surreal because we'd already finished dessert when the bones arrived. Our "wonton berry tower" ($9.50) had been wanton indeed — a chin-high pile of ice cream and sugared rice skins. Delicious, but not exactly the sort of amuse bouche ideal to proceed a flash-fried mackerel skeleton. Our service was sweet — but who'd think to bring fish bones to the table after the ice cream?
Blue Fish is not a perfect restaurant. It can be good if you order carefully and pay attention to the specials, or bad. A Mexican martini was yucky — some absolutely undrinkable mixture of tequila and, like, I don't know... powdered margarita mix? I told my waiter I hated it, and he brought me something much better, a Strawberry Geisha made with sake and crushed berries. But I still had to pay $12; the cocktails are not exactly a bargain. And I'd advise anybody who cares about fish to skip the specialty rolls entirely. Aren't we just bored to death with cream cheese, spicy mayo, avocado, endangered tuna, and crappy farmed salmon? My working hypothesis is that the worst scraps go into rolls in sushi bars: Anybody who wants salmon and cream cheese ought to get herself down to the Jewish deli and stay out of Japanese restaurants. There's something so mid-'90s about these concoctions of asparagus and crab stick, volcano rolls smothered in cream. Diners might help restaurants like this along by ordering only seafood that can be brought to the table without bulldozing coral reefs, poisoning South Asian villages, and loading our bodies full of toxins and heavy metals. Blue Fish should do itself, and its customers, a favor and swim bravely forward into the 21st Century. The fact is, fish that's good for the world just tastes better anyway.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.