Singing the praises of unsung heroes
Seafood items that aren’t all that popular find new life as tasty creations
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.