Atypical Aquatics: Local chefs fall for unusual fish hook, line and sinker

So trout doesn’t feel like a treat anymore, and you’re tired of eating the same old river catfish, breaded and fried. Thankfully, there are loads of weird schools of the finny tribe, and some chefs in town are hooked on a different wave of deep-sea catches, bringing a unique taste of the seacoast right here to River City.

Peek inside the walk-in cooler at Bridgeton fish and seafood distributor Fabulous Fish, and you’ll run across an 8-pound fish that seems more appropriate for a giant aquarium than for a dinner plate. Although barramundi is a common aquarium fish, this Indo-Pacific white fish – long a popular table fish in Australia – is steadily making the A-list among more and more chefs in St. Louis.

“When we send out our weekly catch report to restaurants, they’ll say, ‘What’s this barramundi fish?’” said Rich Gudiswitz of Fabulous Fish. “It strikes an interest because it’s something they have never heard of. Once they taste it, they are hooked.”

Harvest chef-owner Steve Gontram is definitely hooked on barramundi. “It’s a supermild fish that you can cook any number of ways. You can grill it, steam it, poach it, pan roast it. It’s a healthy-eating fish. And you get a bigger flake and thicker fillets, so we like the presentation it gives us,” he said. Since barramundi pairs well with Mediterranean flavors, Gontram is currently offering it pan roasted, served in a goat cheese fondue tossed with Yukon Gold gnocchi, roasted red peppers, grilled portabella mushrooms and spinach. A flavorful tapenade garnishes the dish.

Need another reason to like barramundi? It’s sustainable. “It’s similar to grouper, which is a sea bass. Grouper has been overfished, but barramundi is in good supply,” said Gudiswitz.

Barramundi might be big, but it’s not hideous. That prize goes to opah, also known as moonfish because of its big, round belly and flat, compressed shape. Opah, like barramundi, is a firm fish with a super flake. And the flesh, which turns from pinkish-orange to white when cooked, is just as savory as salmon. Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe especially likes working with this red-bellied deep-sea creature because it adapts to many flavors.

During the winter, Nashan served grilled opah atop a pumpkin-lemongrass broth with a ragout of Asian vegetables and cinnamon bacon, with a delicate scallion crêpe to the side. “It has a buttery finish,” said Nashan. “It’s great with aromatic vegetables. That’s why we used a broth with it.”

This month, Nashan will run a special that offers diners a taste of another unusual fish: red sea bream, considered the king of fish in Japanese culture. Spring marks the height of sea bream season when tai, as the fish is called in Japanese, spawn along the coasts of Japan’s Inland Sea. Nashan’s preparation is a Spanish-inspired one: He first covers the entire red-hued fish with a blend of herbs and salt, wraps it in a leaf such as a banana leaf or fig leaf, and then bakes it. The salt forms a hard, crystalline shell, yet the flesh steams to moist perfection. “It’s like cooking in a clay pot,” explained Nashan. “When it comes out, it’s kind of clay-like. The shell immediately dries, so you get this unctuous, beautiful flaky fish. You’d think it would be salty, but it’s the polar opposite.” Nashan likes to serve red sea bream atop crushed fava or garbanzo beans with a vegetable fricassee. At the table, a ham broth poured into the bowl completes a flavorful fish-meat duo. Don’t expect this fish to make the specials list every night, however. “I only do it every once in a while because it is expensive,” Nashan explained.

Another Japanese fish we dare you to try is monkfish – the liver, that is. Those versed in sashimi may be familiar with the pâté-like delicacy, which you’ll find listed on the order sheet as ankimo. Preparation for the Japanese dish starts with removal of the veins from the liver. The lobes are then soaked in salt, rinsed with sake, rolled into a cylinder and steamed.

From time to time, Miso on Meramec chef Eliott Harris offers the delicacy as a special at the Clayton restaurant. Harris serves the slices of pale pink ankimo over a swirly white bed of chiffonade of daikon topped with thinly sliced green onion. A jaunty carrot-like stick of yamagobo (pickled burdock root) coated with wasabi sesame seeds adds a touch of panache. Ankimo traditionally calls for a couple of condiments – momiji oroshi, grated daikon radish tinted red from chile peppers, and ponzu, a tart sauce made from soy sauce and rice vinegar that has been steeped with dried bonito flakes and citrus juices.

Farmhaus chef and owner Kevin Willmann’s pick for a unique, unheralded fish that’s sprightly for late spring is the comical-looking triggerfish. “Triggerfish is one of my favorites. When snapper and grouper start shutting down, people start seeking out the bycatch fish,” he said.

Triggerfish is considered to be less desirable for multiple reasons. First, that thick, tough skin makes it a tricky fish to break down. “You have to sharpen a knife to clean a handful of triggerfish, and it will be dull by the end of it,” explained Willmann. In addition, the yield on triggerfish is pretty low, because the head takes up nearly two-thirds of its oval, highly compressed body.

What do chefs get for their effort? A fish with “a lot of texture, a lot of nutty flavor and an interesting, oily complex,” described Willmann. “It doesn’t go supersoft or superdry like grouper or snapper. It still has a tender, meaty, buttery quality. It’s so rich and decadent.” As with other meatier, full-bodied fish, Willmann prefers to do a quick sear, then slow roast triggerfish in a 300-degree oven for seven to 15 minutes, which caramelizes the fish. “It draws out a ton of fond, and you can make great pan sauces,” he added.

Not being one to let anything go to waste, Willmann has special uses for the throats and livers of this underused fish. During his tenure at Erato on Main in Edwardsville, Willmann periodically prepared the throats for a dish he termed “trigger wings.” “Under the pectoral fin and under the jaw is an awesome chunk of meat that is not accessible from a standard fillet-type of deal. There are two bones, so it eats like a chicken wing. It’s really cool. It has the texture of frog legs.” And the livers? Willmann considers fried triggerfish livers to be quite the delicacy. “Imagine monkfish liver, but lighter, fluffier and smoother.”

But why imagine when you can get a taste of all of these sea treasures right here in town?