Singing the praises of un­sung he­roes

Seafood items that aren’t all that pop­u­lar find new life as tasty cre­ations

The Province - - LIVE IT! - MIA STAINSBY PHO­TOS: ARETA WONG/PNG Twit­­as­tainsby

It’s like get­ting a picky kid to like broc­coli. Chef Frank Pabst of Blue Water Cafe has been sweet talk­ing to us for 14 years with his an­nual Un­sung He­roes menu for the month of Fe­bru­ary.

These seafood he­roes, of­ten no-thank-you food like broc­coli, are good for well-be­ing — ours and the fu­ture of seafood stocks. By wel­com­ing a wider va­ri­ety of seafood, the sur­vival pres­sure is off the pop­u­lar ones we cur­rently gorge on.

With the Un­sung He­roes fes­ti­val of sea crea­turely de­lights, he ca­joles us to ex­pand palates and try sus­tain­able species like whelk, octopus, sea cu­cum­ber, jel­ly­fish, mack­erel, slip­per limpet, peri­win­kles, her­ring, smelt, cray­fish, stur­geon liver, and oth­ers.

Ad­mit it, they make you squea­mish. Only tal­ent like Pabst’s can nail ugly de­li­cious food and reel in cu­ri­ous din­ers. This menu turned me on to sea cu­cum­ber and jel­ly­fish a few years ago and now I’m a fan (as long as the chef knows how to cook them).

In this 14th year, Pabst of­fers 14 dishes and like a wily par­ent who smug­gles broc­coli into the lasagna, he uses a sleight of words. Doesn’t smelt taco sound OK? And cray­fish cap­puc­cino? Oh, lots of foam, please. And what about sea urchin hot­dog with shoe­string fries? OK, you say, you’ll give it a try. He’s hav­ing a lot of fun with com­fort­ing dis­guises but the real test is in the tast­ing. Dishes are $12.50 to $14.50 and you can or­der one — or 14 if you’re so in­clined.

I tried five this year and I gotta say Pabst does a great job trans­form­ing the un­usual into some­thing fa­mil­iar and de­li­cious. On a Wed­nes­day evening, the room and pri­vate rooms were booked out. And on top of the reg­u­lar menu, the kitchen’s jug­gling

14 new dishes Pabst had cre­ated two weeks be­fore the Un­sung He­roes launch. It’s ob­vi­ous this restau­rant doesn’t need gim­micks to draw din­ers, but it’s a seafood restau­rant aware of risks to its larder. Ten per cent of pro­ceeds from Un­sung He­roes go to the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium’s Ocean Wise pro­gram.

Let’s start with the smelt taco: Two pieces of crisply bat­tered and fried smelt, stand­out masa ha­rina tor­tilla, cab­bage, aji amar­illo (a yel­low Peru­vian chili pep­per) creme came to­gether beau­ti­fully and, un­like many taco ex­pe­ri­ences, no lava of sauce and fill­ing onto my hand. It was tidy and neat, and so tasty.

Her­ring poke bowl was an epiphany. Who knew her­ring could be de­li­cious? The poke fol­lowed the Hawai­ian lead with ogo sea­weed, in­a­mona sauce, av­o­cado, sweet onion, se­same and her­ring roe. In­a­mona is a Hawai­ian condi­ment made with kukui nuts, but Pabst subbed in Brazil nuts. The her­ring, he says, is from the North Sea.

“It’s im­ma­ture her­ring, and has a very dif­fer­ent flavour,” he says. (The Un­sung He­roes are sus­tain­able but not nec­es­sar­ily lo­cal.) Of kukui nuts, he in­forms me that when raw, they’re a good lax­a­tive. That is, they should be roasted un­less you’re stopped up. Good thing he went with Brazil nuts.

I hap­pen to be a kim­chee ad­dict, so jel­ly­fish kim­chee was a no-brainer. Jel­ly­fish (which aren’t re­ally fish as they have no back­bone) aren’t power packs of flavour and can be kind of slip­pery and crunchy, a tex­ture North Amer­i­cans haven’t yet learn to love.

“It in­trigues, but not ev­ery­one likes it,” says Pabst. “But jel­ly­fish are tak­ing over the oceans as waters warm up.” I think they’re beau­ti­ful water coloured bal­let dancers of the sea, but tak­ing over the oceans? Let’s roll, eaters. Pabst did a great job dis­guis­ing it, mix­ing it with chicken, green onions, car­rot and cu­cum­ber and rolling in kim­chee nappa cab­bage, with more dots of kim­chee sauce on the side.

And then there is there’s the red sea cu­cum­ber. Some might say it looks like a spiky sex toy. Ocean Wise would urge you to try the highly sus­tain­able B.C. prod­uct. Asian mar­kets adore it.

“We use the meat, not the spongy out­side,” says Pabst. “It has a sweet clammy flavour with a slight crunch. It’s very pricey.”

He ad­mits it’s a hard sell but this year he made sea cu­cum­ber casino, riff­ing on clams casino, a gratin of ba­con, cel­ery, onions, gar­lic red pep­per, and white wine, and topped with bronzed panko.

Uni, or sea urchin in its shell, looks like a mini por­cu­pine. Yum, huh? In­side, it’s a quiv­ery golden blob of oceany de­li­cious­ness when fresh, and it’s pop­u­lar at the Blue Water sushi bar. Pabst crafted it into a hot­dog. Sac­ri­lege, but a best­seller at Un­sung He­roes. It comes with Asian pear and sweet pep­per rel­ish and driz­zled with uni mus­tard mayo and it sits over shoe­string fries cut as finely as hay.

Other dishes in­clude octopus bolog­nese with pork belly and squid ink fet­tuc­cine; grey mul­let bot­targa gnoc­chi (cured, dried mul­let roe grated over dulse gnoc­chi with ar­ti­choke barigoule); slip­per limpet paella; stur­geon liver pate with pick­led veg, mus­tard seed, grilled bread; and mack­erel nama haru­maki (salad roll with pick­led mack­erel, ume­boshi, daikon, av­o­cado, shiso and al­monds in rice pa­per).

I know some of you are think­ing ‘no, thank you’ or ‘ick’ but this isn’t all or noth­ing. “Ex­plore, try a dish, cross it off your bucket list,” says Pabst. Yes. Be heroic.

In­gre­di­ents in the her­ring poke bowl in­clude in­a­mona sauce and her­ring roe.

The sea urchin hot­dog is a pop­u­lar item at the Blue Water Cafe.

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