Sea-Faring Success

02 June 2006
Sea-Faring Success

Appetizer lineups are fresh with seafood, showcasing local, seasonal species and products flown in from around the world.

This article first appeared in the 15 April 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Incremental appetizer sales build check averages and revenues, a truth that sends operators on scouting missions for appealing first-course options. Many have found that seafood ushers in meals with aplomb, anchoring first courses with flavor, flair and a surge of tasty choices that extend beyond calamari, popcorn shrimp and crab cakes.

When it comes to menu development, approaches to starters vary among operators, often differing from main-course philosophies. Some kitchens gravitate toward light, lively preparations that gently awaken palates, while others explore bolder flavors that are better suited to smaller, appetizer-sized portions than to main courses.

"First tastes are like first dates, and the appetizer is the first impression," says Executive Chef Bernard Guillas of The Marine Room in La Jolla, Calif., where six of 12 appetizers are seafood-based. "It has to be beautifully presented, stylish and something that will get taste buds excited."

Testing the Waters

Options at Guillas' oceanfront restaurant include Pacific oysters, steamed in spinach leaves with lobster mousse, and kampachi, a variety of sustainably farmed Hawaiian yellowtail marinated briefly in seasoned rice vinegar, hazelnut oil and spices. The lineup reflects a menu strategy-shared by many operators-of balancing familiar and less-typical offerings to keep customers comfortable while broadening taste horizons.

At Salty's on Alki Beach, part of a three-unit concept in Seattle and Portland, Ore., Executive Chef Jeremy McLachlan prefers subtly flavored first courses such as the restaurant's signature coconut prawns, made with frozen shrimp that before service are hand coated with tempura batter and coconut flakes.

"You don't want to kill the rest of the meal with an appetizer that is too strong, heavy or abrasive to the palate," says McLachlan, who in early spring featured a seasonal special of halibut-cheek seviche, marinated in lime juice and tossed with jalapeÁ±os, cilantro, red onion, salt and a touch of ketchup.

Like many high-volume restaurants, Salty's on Alki Beach uses large distributors for seafood. From them he can purchase local products such as halibut, sole and crab from nearby Puget Sound as well as more far-flung species such as ono (also known as wahoo) and swordfish.

At Compass in New York City, Executive Chef John Fraser attributes the popularity of seafood starters in part to guests who don't want to commit to a main course of fish. He focuses on seasonality to guide menu development and favors simpler preparations, especially for appetizers.

"Starters offer just a few bites, while an entrée will sit in front of a customer for much longer, so there has to be a lot more going on," he says.

Raw hamachi, distinguished by rich, buttery flavor, is presented crudo-style with sea salt, grilled persimmon and lime-vanilla syrup. Previous menus have included turbot poached in olive oil.

Less Is More

Because first courses often allow chefs to flex creative muscles, seafood's wide range of tastes, textures and sizes make it an ideal starting point, says Rich Vellante, executive chef and senior vice president for 31-unit, Boston-based Legal Sea Foods.

"The nice thing with appetizers is that you can be very assertive with specific flavors whether salty, spicy or sour, and it's just enough to please the palate," he says.

Legal purchases seafood through day-boat fisherman, and sustainability is on Vellante's short list of factors in developing new menu items. Diners remain avidly loyal to fried appetizers, but there's also interest in less-common products such as cod or halibut cheeks as well as unique presentations. For a recently introduced starter, large shrimp are pounded scaloppine-style, dipped in flour, egg wash and seasoned panko breadcrumbs then sautéed and served with caper-butter sauce and sautéed spinach.

Eric Eisenberg, executive chef at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, frequently kicks off catered events and meetings with fresh takes on seafood favorites. Recipes such as fried oysters in phyllo cups with hummus and roasted eggplant or smoked salmon tarts with chive crème fraÁ®che reflect his partiality for shellfish and smoked fish in first courses.

"Shellfish tends to be more expensive, and when you're giving a single bite rather than filling a plate, it's a way to give customers those more-opulent ingredients," Eisenberg says. "Also, because of the richness and depth of flavor, less is more. The same goes for smoked salmon."

As sustainability efforts gain momentum, even moving into noncommercial companies such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group USA, many companies are enacting policies to shift purchasing toward sustainable resources. Eisenberg has begun working with his primary vendor to find affordable sustainable options for Swedish Medical Center. For him, food-cost restrictions mean sustainable fin fish must be purchased frozen, but fresh mollusks are available that fit the hospital's price points, he says.

Out of the Ordinary

Though customary first courses of crab, shrimp and scallops remain customer favorites, operators also garner positive guest response serving less-common components and combinations.

Executive Chef Robert Carter of the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, S.C., unites grouper, shrimp and salmon with goat cheese, dried tomatoes and herbed brioche crumbs in a bottomless tart shell. At Carmen the Restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., Chef-owner Carmen Gonzalez serves grouper croquettes and bacalaitos (codfish fritters), both of which can be prepared in advance and frozen for easier frying.

Four of six starters on the menu at the Ahwahnee Dining Room in California's Yosemite National Park spotlight seafood. Executive Chef Percy Whatley intersperses traditional crab cakes and seared scallops with regional selections such as steelhead trout and sturgeon from the Sacramento River.

"If you keep portions small and don't overmanipulate the product, it can be a light dish. Don't overseason or get too intense with preparations, like doing a grilled item, because that takes the flavors up a notch to where it might as well be an entrée," he says.

For meaty, mild-flavored sturgeon, Whatley prefers pan searing or poaching in a liquid seasoned with ginger, lemongrass, salt and chiles. Steelhead trout is poached simply in court bouillon and paired with cucumber salad.

Steve Mandracchia, executive chef for Trump Restaurants LLC at The Trump World Tower in New York City, recently introduced seviche made with barramundi, an Australian species that is sustainably farmed in the United States.

He fillets the fish and marinates it in a mix of yuzu, red grapefruit and lime juices. The seviche is spooned into hollowed, seedless cucumbers, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and dusted with toasted coriander.

"I grew up in the wholesale fish business, so I'm pretty familiar with most of the species you see on the East Coast, and I never saw barramundi until a year ago," Mandracchia says. "You think you know everything, and to see a new fish is kind of fun."

Who's Buying?

R&I's 2005 Menu Census Study asked operators which of the following seafood products are purchased for use in their operations: shrimp, fin fish, crab, scallops, clams, lobster, oysters, calamari/squid and mussels. While the data do not address the entire seafood spectrum-omitting such foodservice standards as canned tuna-the study offers insights into the buying habits of the industry's wide-ranging segments.

  • Among the options given, the top-five seafood products purchased-shrimp, fin fish, crab, scallops and clams-match across all commercial and noncommercial segments except in fine dining and hotels/motels, where lobster takes clams' No. 5 spot.
  • 78% of operators buy shrimp, easily outpacing purchasers of fin fish at 54% and crab at 51%. Among shrimp purchasers, hotels/motels lead the pack, with 97% buying shrimp.
  • 63% of hospital/healthcare facilities buy fin fish, higher than the industry-wide average of 54%.
  • More business-and-industry operations purchase clams than scallops, at 43% and 36%, respectively.
  • 40% of quick-service restaurants and 38% of schools (K-12) do not purchase seafood products.
  • More than 20% of family-dining restaurants purchase lobster, oysters and calamari.
    Virtually the same percentage of casual/theme restaurants purchase crab (56%) as fin fish (55%).
  • More fine-dining restaurants purchase crab (84%), scallops (82%) and lobster (78%) than fin fish (76%).
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