Eating fish in the 505
Getting great fish in New Mexico isn’t unicorn hunting. And if the thought of eating sushi here is unsettling, it shouldn’t be. Santa Feans love to discuss what they think the town “needs” in terms of food and drink — but let the evidence show that better fish is not of those things. Whether you’re considering d sardine or a skein of wild salmon roe, t some sources are certainly supet the real red flag with regard to fish comes with sloppy food handling, which can happen anywhere, even with gulls circling overand head the sting of salt in the air.
Our obsession with freshness — and the notion that fish caught at the dawn of the day you consume it is universally preferable — is part oversimplification and part myth. The quality control that determines shelf life has less to do with the length of time that seafood has been kept on ice and more to do with its fate in the corporeal afterlife. The FDA puts the chill on serving raw fish unless it’s been frozen first, to kill “parasitic worms that can infect and injure consumers,” according to their Food Code, making thawed fish the national standard for things like sushi, ceviche, and cold-smoked salmon. The exception is tuna, which is not eaten fresh despite its purity; it requires a few days of careful aging to make its flesh supple and to develop a savory flavor within, which is sometimes accomplished by wrapping it in glutamate-rich kombu, the ingredient that led to the discovery of umami. New York-based Japanese fish-aging master Eiji Ichimura earned two Michelin stars and a three-star rating from The New York Times before launching a solo endeavor in January. At his new eponymous restaurant in Tribeca, Ichimura is exploring techniques where enzymes work their magic to tenderize and intensify flavor.
“The concept of letting certain types of fish age before they’re eaten isn’t proprietary or even new,” according to a 2016 Food & Wine article. After all, sushi originated as salted fish aged in fermenting rice. Meatier fish — like tuna, mackerel, and sardines — are more subject to spoilage and often destined for canneries, where processing is immediate. In sushi, mackerel is almost always lightly cured, even when it appears to be raw.
Salmon fillets that are not previously frozen are not suited for searing medium-rare unless you’re feeding your enemies, because of unpleasant hazards like tapeworms. But salmon are often blast-frozen at sea, thus preserving their just-caught state — anything that thrives in the Yukon River or sub-Antarctic waters is not going to wither in a freezer. In 2010, the conservation organization Ecotrust published a multi-year global study of salmon that demystifies illusions about sustainability, debunks irrational concerns over wild and organic versus conventional or farmed, and encourages a wider embrace of frozen salmon for its much lower environmental impact. “In fish-loving Japan, which gets much of its fish by air, switching to 75 percent frozen salmon would have more benefit than all of Europe eating locally farmed salmon,” according to the study.
For almost 25 years, Jeff Koscomb has owned and operated Above Sea Level, a Santa Fe company responsible for supplying most, if not all, of the city’s fine dining restaurants. “People’s top concern is freshness,” said Koscomb, who receives daily shipments and provides same-day delivery. His inventory travels here in the cargo holds of passenger jets from a constellation of origins, and he emphasized that his company is defined primarily by logistics and a strong relationship with purveyors. Former Santa Fe chef Deena Chafetz has spent most of her career cooking seafood up and down the East Coast, including a seven-year stint at a Japanese restaurant . based in Oakland, she said, ere, I’m c efs in
While there’s a certain romance to the idea of chefs buying directly from the vendors who fish-and-gather themselves, the advantage is ultimately immaterial. Koscomb’s wholesale prices are similar to those of Chafetz’s suppliers. The market price for Cape Cod sea scallops is identical whether you’re buying from the local Whole Foods Market or a fishmonger on the Cape — just feet from the water and with the middleman removed — which is typical of the highway robbery for fish sold in seaside towns.
Nine miles north of Taos in Arroyo Seco is Aceq (480 NM-150), Above Sea Level’s most remotely located account. At Aceq, owner and sommelier Michael Wagener’s Wisconsin roots entwine with global comforts both novel and familiar. When his nostalgia for the lakefront materialized on the menu as fried smelt, the dish was met with hesitation. Wagener asserted that a solid reputation puts people at ease with the unfamiliar, which in the case of those smelt meant telling patrons where the fish came from and how it was caught and then instructing them to eat it whole. He said, “Unless you’re on the deck catching it yourself, this is as fresh as seafood gets anywhere in the country.”
“People need to know it’s safe to eat sushi, and we’re here to help them with that endeavor,” said Koscomb. With changing menus, it’s not possible to list every version of crudo, tartare, or poke in town, so with a narrow focus on sushi and sashimi, here are eight places to reliably get your fish fix. We used crispy salmon skin, the bacon of the sea, served in conical hand rolls (temaki), as the yardstick for comparing knife skills and butchery, along with different efforts made in garnishing, seasoning, and frying to order. Loyalties may vary, but keep in mind that even the best raw materials can’t make up for poorly prepared sushi rice. When done right, it’s half the pleasure.
The modesty of its low-profile location makes the menu at Tokyo Café (1827 Cerrillos Road) feel weighty with gambles, and while the salmon-skin roll here is nothing special, the tempura-fried spicy tuna roll is crispy creamed delight, and the warm eel over rice is refreshingly unburdened by its eponymous sticky sauce.
At Kohnami Restaurant (313 S. Guadalupe St.), sashimi is sliced into smooth, fat slabs, and the Geisha roll — three kinds of fish wrapped in cucumber — is among the less traditional and more widely accommodating items. Theirs is quite possibly the least substantial salmon-skin roll in town, filled with crushed pink feathers of fish, but when the weather’s right, a shady spot on the patio here should soothe any burn of disappointment.
With the same ownership as Kohnami, San Q Sushi (3470 Zafarano Drive) has its following, especially with the absence of nearby competition, but keep the ordering simple and expect to leave smelling like tempura. Special rolls here are a limited selection from Kohnami’s menu, and the combination of shrimp tempura and tuna in the nearly identical Playboy and Persephone rolls are as flavor-gorged as gateway sushi should be.
While Masa Sushi (927 W. Alameda St.) is not the place to go if you’re on any kind of schedule, the food is almost worth the time you might spend waiting. The special rolls dazzle, and the salmon-skin hand roll is an audible explosion of smoky richness and crunch with the dreamiest of ratios. Salmon lovers will find the spicy salmon roll a more distinctive alternative to the usually milder tuna, and sashimi is served in luxurious portions.
Since moving downtown in 2011 after a decade in its St. Michael’s Drive location, Izmi Sushi Bar (105 E. Marcy St.) has acquired the urban setting to match its excellent service and pristine fish, and the prices reflect the shift. This is where to get acquainted with New Zealand marinefarmed king salmon, now rated “Best Choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s globally observed consumer guide, Seafood Watch. Enjoy it as nigiri, draped over pearly sweet rice. The Ichiban roll — with shrimp tempura, tuna, yellowtail, and avocado — is mounted with lush black caviar.
Kai Sushi & Dining (720-2M St. Michael’s Drive) puts forth a sleek vibe from behind the sushi bar, and the salty-sweet salmonskin hand roll is flush with dewy rice. Try the Red & Red, a buttery wallop of tuna inside and out with a saucy splash of ponzu.
Forty-two years into the game, Shohko Café (321 Johnson St.) has the most established fan base. Expect all the classics done properly, if in smaller portions and at a higher price; sashimi will run you a premium. The salmon-skin roll has a core of nutty burdock root, and all the usual suspects will be just as good here, if not exemplary.
Jewelry box-sized Sushi Land East (60 E. San Francisco St., #102-A) turns out superb sushi rice, which can be scooped from small bowls topped with the chef’s choice of raw fish. This is where to come for uni, oysters, monkfish liver, and fresh sardines in season. The salmon-skin hand roll pales next to gems like the spectacularly complex Super Eel roll. If you like tarted-up rolls that don’t border on ludicrous, this is the place for you.
Our obsession with freshness is part oversimplification and part myth.
Kai Sushi & Dining
Brent Jung and his mother, Hyunsook Lee, owners of Izmi Sushi Bar; file photo
Izmi Sushi Bar