When I set out with Aphotic to create a best practice seafood restaurant, subscribing to the ethos of “try to use everything”, or as the inspirational Chef Josh Niland says, “the whole fish”, I was serious about the endeavor. Niland’s book, The Whole Fish, has been a game changer for many in this fishy industry of food, and I look at this work as the playbook for the modern seafood restaurant in the categories of ethics, presentation, and passion. The new standard has been set, brought forth to us from Australia by a bunch a tall poppies - and, it’s a beauty.
In my head, as I was working through my version of a seafood restaurant concept, what would later become Aphotic, I could hear Niland blubbering away in his goofy Australian accent about “the culinary opportunities that may be found in the belly of a pristine John Dory fish,” and other such Niland recommendations that one catches posted on his various performing Gram holdings.
With my limited exposure to Australians in general, and with certainly no direct access to “Saint Peter” himself, this voice in my head that is ”his”, is a mixture of Mic Dundee, from the popular 1980s film Crocodile Dundee, and Bandit, the whimsical father in the popular Australian children’s program Bluey, that I admittedly enjoy watching with my children.
Indulging in Bandit’s antics on the screen with his dogs/kids, Bluey and Bingo, has taught me to be a better father (this is true for many of us bad fathers out there), Mic Dundee’s confrontation with New York’s gangs in the 80s has given me one of my favorite phrases in “that’s not a knife” when comparing blade sizes with some of my chefs in the kitchen, and Josh Niland’s books have shown me the way of how to be a better practitioner of fish butchery. Good on ya, Australia.
While the advent of a charcuterie program at Aphotic was a natural extension of creatively finding purpose for trim and non-primary parts of the fish, I have to admit that even for someone as odd as I am, Niland’s approach is truly out of this world, rightly putting the “alien” in Australian.
I fucking love this Martian of a man; everything he and his team come up with is brilliant, though admittedly his recipes don’t always work for me in practice (Murray Cod fat was a big failure in usage for us - shit smells like pond scum - not really sure how anyone downunder can like that - but, on the other hand, they do like Vegamite on toast, so maybe they are just kooky), nor are the fish in my part of the pond identical (I would love to find an equivalent for a beautiful and mythic coral trout, found near the Great Coral Reef - but, alas, we have killed all of our native coral already with the acidification of oceans due to all of the lime slices lost to the Gulf during successive decades of the college Spring Breaks, Girls Gone Wild, and Corona Beer Marketing influence - and the closest match I can locate is a rare Florida Grouper called a Kitty Mitchel)- making imitation with Australian resources sometimes impossible.
We at Aphotic are mainly working with what we can find here on the Pacific coast of California, North to Alaska, and select parts of this glorious Union where good and tasty fishy bites may be available, but with limited scope.
With the volumes of fish that we currently contemplate at the restaurant, we typically accumulate large amounts of these excess parts, turning into what Chef Niland calls “fissues” - the odds and ends of fish butchery - that I challenge myself and team to repurpose into something that improves on our already dynamic culinary programming.
Fish charcuterie at Aphotic was born from this philosophy, and while we don’t always use odds and ends for our creations (sometimes we just use some of the best parts, hahhahahhahahahhhahaha! (evil laugh)) in this one facet of the culinary agenda, we have had a lot of success in adapting fish into preparations that were once exclusively the domain of meat.
I guess my own storied background in various facets of the culinary world, too, prepared me for this transition. When I was a young ankle biter chef, I worked in Danny Boulud’s kitchen in NYC, witnessing very professional French charcuterie take hold of the Theater going types of the Upper West Side at the Bar Boulud near Lincoln Center. Sylvan Gasdon was the scrapper from Giles Verot’s Charcuterie in Paris that was chosen to spearhead the initiative - a massive underground kitchen producing pates, boudins, terrines, sausages, meatpies, and other french-as-fuck stuff.
I was just cooking steak on the hotline, and getting into trouble - but I did have a rudimentary handle on the French language, and so I made better friends with the Frenchies in the company (there were many), than the hard Brooklyn and NJ types that get gravitationally sucked from the burrows to the City to work with the world. I was, effectively, the “half french”, and understood as someone that “got it”, even if I was rough around the edges. Years later, I ended up helping Sylvan open his own charcuterie establishment in Orsay, France, which is where my appreciation for the finer pates in life was really solidified. I just knew that this experience would pan out with something useful. Merci Sylvan and Aileen!
Fast forward 15 years, and that brings us up to speed. When approaching recipe ideas for using fish in place of meat, there is not currently a comprehensive resource. At some point, finding the properties of tuna, say, as remarkably similar to beef, I started using meat driven classic recipes almost verbatim. Byran Polcyn’s classic, “Charcuterie”, has been the most solid reference in terms of simple recipe reproduction. His book predates the glorious age of modern photography, so there is a lot of guesswork on the “look” of items, but I guess that’s where our chefy senses of style and aesthetic have an opportunity to “make it nice ”(Daniel Humm). It turns out that pork is essential in the making of fine charcuterie, and actually, the combination of fish and pig is a relatively happy marriage.
At any rate, with the debut of our fish charcuterie program at Aphotic in early June, there are 5 benchmarked items that we offer exclusively at the bar - charcuterie being a wonderful item to enjoy with cocktails or wine:
Tuna Saussison Sec (finely mandolined slices, arranged on a tuna bone skewer, with cured black olive, pickled jalapeno, and confited sun-dried early girl tomatoes - its a great snack to go with a dry martini, etc.)
Lime Pickled Anchovies Anchovies are a particular Bay Area specialty item. Here we have pickled the fish to chemically cook it - we then remove the filets from the bone, and gently store them in grapeseed oil. On the plate up, three filets are curled up ontop a hearth crisped focaccia finger with fava bean smear, meyer lemon confit, and allium flowers.
Sheephead Cheese This is a tongue and cheek adaptation of the French “Fromage de Tete”, usually made with a pig’s head and trotters. Ours is made with the California Sheephead fish, a SoCal swimmer that has a frontal resemblance to the head of sheep. Sheephead have large biters, adapted for snatching urchin and other shellfish from their shallow abodes, breaking open their protective layers, and consuming the good stuff within. This fish has a buttery flesh that melts in your mouth when poached, making it an ideal candidate to pair with the holding tenacity of the pig’s trotter. A slice of the Sheepshead Cheese is dressed with a fresh vinaigrette of shallot, chive, olive oil and sherry vinegar, some dill pickles, scallion, and chive oil. Special kicker - we make crunchy chicharrones from the scale-on fish skin, which puffs delightfully in the frier. Dusted with salt and espelette pepper, we encourage our guests to make open faced sangas with equal parts skin and terrine. Now, that’s a tucker!
Spot Prawn Mortadella My personal favorite on the current line-up of charcuterie items. I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with a whole freezer full of this extremely expensive local cold water prawn - I had over-purchased for seasonal needs, and so I thought that, well, maybe these luxurious shrimp could maybe work in a Mortadella. I really like Mortadella. What American doesn’t like Bologna? I simply made a substitute of spot prawn for pork meat in a traditional Mortadella recipe from Bryan’s book, and voila!, it came out tasting like a heavenly imitation from the sea. I made sandwiches with white bread and mayonnaise with the first batch (amazing snack), and came up with a more soigne plating for the humble Mortadella later.
We compliment the spot prawn Mortadella with unctuous raw spot prawn, brined spot prawn roe, toasted brioche croutons, lime zest and juice, cumin and cayenne pepper, and garnished with citrus marigold and shrimp oil…..it is, very good.
Trout Rilettes Admittedly, there is nothing super special about this one, other than it being really delicious, as the mountain spring trout come from the unparalleled Mt. Lassen Trout Farm in Paynes Creek, CA . We always have cured and hot smoked Mt. Lassen Trout, and this was a really easy way to play it in another dish on the menu at the restaurant. The plating of it, too, is a bit of a show off, as it could easily be a lot simpler. But no.
The trout is dressed with creme fraiche, and seasoned with lemon pickled fennel, mustard seed, and horseradish. This mixture goes off center of the plate like a lunch lady scoop of mashed potatoes, and then we hide this misery with beautiful shingled ribbons of salted persian and dill pickled cucumber. Garnish on top with bronze fennel, celery leaves, and nasturtium petals. Finished with a generous scoop of smoked Mt. Lassen Trout roe, and dressed with a buttermilk vinaigrette with a deep emerald nasturtium oil. Served with buttered and toasted marble rye bread - what else?
Stay tuned for updates to these selections, which will change seasonally, and as the recipes develop. Summer highlights, in the works already, include tuna bresaole, kingfish pastrami, and whitefish weisswurst. That's a ripper!
Peter J Hemsley