The saying “There’s a whole lot of fish in the sea” may be intended to soothe wounded hearts, but it is increasingly relevant to hungry stomachs. As our world’s fisheries are depleted, chefs are stepping up to the plate (pun intended) to give the big fish of the world a well-deserved break. I read recently that if everyone on the planet ate wild salmon for dinner this evening, wild salmon would be extinct. Some fish have become too popular for their own good.
Cue the by-catch fish, or as fishermen sometimes call them, trash fish—fish which may be perfectly tasty but for whatever reason aren’t in vogue and therefore get thrown back. According to Chef Nico Romo of FISH restaurant in Charleston, SC, customers are now braver about trying things on the menu whose names they don’t necessarily recognize.
I scored a ticket to a Trash Fish dinner hosted by Patrick Properties (owner of FISH) at their sprawling Lowndes Grove Plantation. Chef Romo invited local chefs to cook up unusual catch in a sumptuous five-course meal under the oaks. We started off with a spicy ginger cocktail made with William Wolf pecan bourbon and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. Before each course, guest fisherman of the evening Mark Marhefka explained the significance of each fish served.
We were seated at long communal tables intended to foster conversation, since dialogue is essential to the sustainability movement. Side dishes and baguettes were passed, course after course was served, and the sun slowly sank over the Ashley River. There really is no better venue for a meal.
Dinner highlights, for me, were: The Grocery Chef Kevin Johnson’s Thai marinated fish salad with banded rudderfish, cucumber, peanuts, crispy rice, and an unexpected bang from jalapeno slices. Hominy Grill’s Robert Stehling used pine bark to smoke a white grunt (a.k.a. “sugar lips”) for a tasty stew. The Macintosh’s Jeremiah Bacon spent his late afternoon Instagramming pics of his smoking amberjacks before stuffing the delicious fish into ravioli purses, smothered with a creamy green garlic-corn soubise with scattered pine nuts and flecks of watercress. Guests oohed and aahed over Romo’s side dish of squash flower blossoms stuffed with a tomato fennel marmalade, but the show stopper was his whole tilefish baked in a clay fish mold with Marhefka’s name written into the clay itself (an ancient tradition honoring the fisherman who caught the fish).
Never has trashy been so tasteful.