Bill Milne
Fresh off the plane from the Mediterranean, the first stop fish make at Bartolotta Ristorante de Mare in Wynn Las Vegas is on a silvery Weight-Tronix rolling digital scale. Paul Bartolotta surveys the catch of the day.
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Walk on the Safe Side

Chris Styler - March 2006

Fish and seafood are taking center stage in more and more restaurants, from dramatic tank and raw bar displays to arresting presentations on the plate. Aquatic mavens pass along sage handling and cooking pointers to editor-at-large Chris Styler.

Given that chefs are a notoriously vocal and opinionated bunch, it's surprising to find very little disagreement among them when it comes to the proper handling of seafood. However it may be cooked--on a plancha, in a pot of boiling water, over coals, sous-vide, or in a $300 sauté pan over an induction burner--technique matters not one whit if the fish in question hasn't been properly cared for before it hits the heat.

It's impossible to talk about American seafood restaurants without mentioning Rick Moonen, whose RM Seafood in Las Vegas boasts 16,000 square feet spread out over two levels. The lower level r.bar.cafe encompasses a casual 250 seat cafe featuring a raw bar and iced seafood display as well as tanks for live lobsters, Dungeness crabs, and the occasional sea urchin or prawn. The list of 47 wines by the glass belies the casual fare, such as Moonen's justifiably renowned crab cakes, New England clam chowder, and steaks and chops for carniphiles. Upstairs in the intimate 85 seat fine dining space, casual gives way to high end in everything from the wine list and plush white leather chairs to a nightly chef's tasting menu and private dining room. An à la carte menu is available as well.

"Each level has its own open kitchen for service, but we double up on certain things," Moonen explains. "Like one pastry chef for both levels. All the seafood receiving and butchering is done by one person too." All finfish come into RM Seafood "round," i.e., cleaned but with heads removed (not to be confused with "whole," or head-on fish; Moonen asks for heads to be removed to save on freight. "If I can't tell the quality of fish without the eyes and gills at this stage of the game…" he muses). Receiving is done in an area in full view of Moonen's office. Once checked for weight, quality, and price, the fish is put into Cambro perforated plastic containers, which are set into deeper solid containers, labeled, and dated. The fish is covered completely in flaked ice. (Moonen uses two Follett ice machines--one for cubes and one for flakes--that produce one and a half tons of ice each per day.)

RM's fish butcher, working in a refrigerated room and with direction from prep sheets filled out by Moonen's crew, starts to work, drawing a knife from a cabinet sterilized by ultraviolet light manufactured by Atlantic Ultraviolet. All fish are butchered on a custom stainless-steel table; a lip runs around its edges to help keep floors clean. The table's built-in sink is equipped with a tall gooseneck water sprayer and perforated insert (such as those in most dishwashing stations) to prevent scales from clogging the drain. Moonen prefers to cut his fish as close to service as possible, but goes one step further. "Once the fish is cut, it's vacuum sealed using a Koch Ultravac," he explains. Smaller lots of fillets get packed in regular resealable plastic bags. "I want to keep it as cold as possible but don't ever want it to touch ice." Portioned, sealed fish is stored under ice in Traulsen fish files before making it to stations in the kitchens. The downstairs central prep area features Southbend tilting kettles for stocks and soups, a large two-compartment steamer for lobsters and vegetables, and an Irinox blast freezer that cools down stocks and sauces rapidly, taking them through the danger zone--140˚ to 40°F--quickly.

In the downstairs kitchen, a Keating plancha allows for high volume and stays at a steady high temperature, unlike an overloaded sauté pan. "If there's a private party with a main course of, say, dorade fillets, all 30 go on the plancha at once and all come out perfect," says Moonen. On the sauté line, it's black steel pans all the way for "better sear and crust." A fish spatula with a wooden handle and a tapered, slotted stainless-steel business end, is the weapon of choice for Moonen--and most other chefs who deal extensively with fish--for turning fish on the grill, plancha, or in a sauté pan. Moonen gives the nod to small All-Clad saucepans--five or six dozen of them--for serving soupy main courses like lobster potpie with puff pastry.

His other small gear includes immersion blenders (Waring or Braun) to lighten up or finish sauces or to make emulsions and the occasional foam. Vulcan salamanders keep plates hot and finish certain dishes, while retractable heat lamps by Hatco line the pick-up station. "I can pull them down close to plating level or raise them all the way up," Moonen states. "They give me control of the temperature of different parts of the line." Lastly, a Bradley smoker is used to smoke a wide variety of fish.

"You know, it's funny," says Paul Bartolotta, another landlocked fish lover, who appears on this month's cover. "But I'm actually cooking a lot less now than ever before." It's not that Bartolotta has been relaxing poolside at Wynn Las Vegas, home to his groundbreaking Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, but that the stratospherically good quality of his seafood means he prefers to not do much to it before it reaches his guests. "What we do in this restaurant is unique," Bartolotta says. "Ninety per cent of our seafood is from the Mediterranean. Only shellfish--clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp--are from the U.S."

Bartolotta doesn't buy much of his fish from vendors; he's a direct importer who works with a consolidator in Milan who procures the freshest fish from Italian waters, packs them, and ships them directly to Bartolotta. (What little he can't source in Italy is supplemented by shipments from places like Paris' Rungis market and Scotland.) Among the 32-plus species which have booked passage on Air Bartolotta from Italy to Las Vegas are octopus, cuttlefish, small and large calamari, and finfish such as sardines, anchovies, ombrina (croaker), branzino (sea bass), orata (gilthead bream), and pagaro (purple snapper).

Bartolotta's consolidator, in turn, works with a veterinarian who verifies the species and place of origin, using his own knowledge and the documentation provided by the fishermen who netted the goods. "I order however many of each fish I want by weight and number of pieces. The tiny percentage they can't get from the wild is made up in farmed fish," Bartolotta continues, referring to a few select farms in Italy whose products he has tasted and approved to take up any slack in a day's order.

All of this adds up to four to five shipments per week, with a minimum of 300 and a maximum of 500 kilos per delivery--averaging an incredible 2,200 to 3,000 pounds of fish a week from the Mediterranean alone. Bartolotta has worked to have the seafood delivered as quickly as possible (by reserving space with air freight companies in advance of each shipment) and keeps a Big-Brotherish eye on his purchases while they're traveling. "Microchips are placed inside some of the boxes," Bartolotta explains. "They can record not only the location of the fish but the temperature at various points during the journey." Another way Bartolotta speeds the fish from market to table is by knowing in advance exactly what is arriving. Fishermen coming into port send text messages to his consolidator, who in turn sends text messages to Bartolotta. "I can draw up the next day's fish tally before the plane leaves Italy," he notes. Because of the speed with which Bartolotta receives fish, he prefers to leave them whole--completely untouched--until as close to serving time as possible. "Most people clean their fish as soon as they come in the door," Bartolotta states. "I'm at least a few days ahead of the game in terms of freshness, so I feel the less air and bacteria I introduce into the fish when I clean them, the better off I am."

After being checked in at Wynn Las Vegas' central receiving area, shipments are sent to the restaurant. Each fish is then weighed on a Weigh-Tronix digital scale and tagged. This is key to the whole concept of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, where fish is sold by weight exclusively, more specifically by the etto, or 100-gram unit (about three ounces), as is custom in seafood restaurants in Italy. Servers present a tray displaying the day's selection to each table, explaining which fish may end up in pasta sauces, which on the Wood Stone charcoal grill, which al cartoccio (steamed in parchment or aluminum foil), which in antipasti, and which might be roasted or braised whole in Blodgett convection ovens. Working with the day's fish tally, which lists how many whole fish of each variety are in stock and how much each of them weighs, servers hold tableside discussions with diners to determine the right fish, weight, and method of cooking for each group. Currently a large platter of fish is presented as evidence of freshness and to spark interest. In the works is a minifleet of custom-built carts, modeled on a large prototype that currently displays seafood at the entrance to the restaurant, that servers will wheel up to each table.

"There is sometimes a perception in this country of Italian restaurants as a cheap option." Bartolotta says. "But when people see the quality of what we're working with, they understand the price structure. We meet with almost no price resistance once people see the fish and hear the lengths we've gone through to get them here." A couple starting with a light salad and finishing with a roasted whole fish might order five to six etti per person. Tables who take advantage of Bartolotta's traditional Italian three course menu may opt for three to four etti of whole fish per person. (Such a menu might consist of grilled cuttlefish, warm octopus with potatoes and peppers, or seafood salad for antipasti; spaghetti with spiny lobster from Sicily or Sardinia, seafood risotto with cuttlefish ink from Chioggia, or a non-seafood ricotta ravioli for the pasta course, followed by the main event.) "It puts a lot of responsibility on the servers," Bartolotta notes, "but it also gives them the chance to create a spectacular experience."

"This concept of selling fish by weight is alien only to North Americans, not to Latin and South Americans, Asians, or most Europeans," Bartolotta says, tallying up a large part of his restaurant's clientele. "But it's really catching on with Americans too. When you walk out to the dining room to present a party of 20 with a single fish that will feed them all, it makes an impact. When the server bones and plates it an hour later, people go nuts. That's what I mean by creating the experience."

Robert Holley, executive chef of the Atlanta Fish Market, has "whacked" some fish in his day. Currently on weekends, the restaurant caters to the piscine fantasies of some 900 to 1,250 guests a day. "I'm looking at today's invoices," Holley shares, "and they're pushing $13,000." Besides the big sellers--grouper, tuna, salmon, swordfish, halibut, codfish, hake, and lemon sole--Holley hasn't met a fish he can't sell, as long as he keeps it in great shape. "The closer to 32 degrees I store my fish, the longer the life," Holley states, echoing Harold McGee's findings (see box on page 80). "Fish that comes through your door is like a ticking time bomb," Holley warns. "The difference between 32 and 40 degrees is amazing. And cut just what you need for service that day. A whole salmon on ice is going to taste a lot better after two days than a bunch of fillets stored in the walk-in."

Fish for Holley's kitchen is cut in a refrigerated room that's kept as close to 35°F as possible. Holley notes that many chefs not blessed with the luxury of a refrigerated cut room have taken to cutting fish inside their walk-ins.

As part of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, the Atlanta Fish Market has some advantages that smaller restaurants may not. Among them is a maintenance team whose job it is to periodically check the workings of all refrigeration units to prevent seafood-spoilage problems rather than respond to them. But even independents, Holley advises, can hire their own outside firms to do the same. "When it comes to handling fish, temperature is everything." To that end, Holley has changed over to Copeland freezer compressors on the walk-in refrigerators, where he stores the restaurant's protein inventory. "I set the temperature to 29 degrees. Given the traffic in and out, the boxes stay just above freezing," Holley reports.

Once in the kitchen, Holley relies on Traulsen and Victory refrigeration--both stand-up and under the counter reach-in units. Even though he finds both brands extremely reliable, Holley isn't one to leave things to chance. All the line cooks use frozen gel ice packs to boost the cooling power of the fish storage units. Given the restaurant's volume, it's not surprising that Holley relies on the heavy-duty line of ranges by Southbend and Garland. A Bakers Pride pizza oven and convection units from Blodgett supply oven power, while Jade and Keating fryers handle that portion of the menu.

So you're not serving 6,000 meals a week and you're not dropping somewhere in the high-five figures on fish every week. What can you do to keep the quality of your fish up? Christine Keff's Flying Fish restaurant in Seattle has built a national reputation on quality seafood. "Different seafood is handled differently," Keff states simply. And she should know: Keff's seafood comes from the nearby waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia as well as not-so-nearby waters, such as Hawaii. In addition to icing whole fish in perforated containers until time to portion, seafood is allotted its own 8-by-10-foot walk-in. Once cut, portions are wrapped in plastic and packed into "shoe-boxes," as Keff calls them--plastic containers that are a little bigger than one-third sheet pans. "They fit nicely, so they take up little space in the walk-in," Keff explains. "And each shoe box fits about 24 portions, so it's an easy way to take a quick nightly inventory."

In a world of heightened food safety awareness, Keff keeps up with the vigilant times. King County, Washington, under whose regulatory radar Flying Fish falls, has recently dropped the "safe" temperature for the storage of fish and seafood from 45 to 41°F. In compliance, a large stainless-steel table outside the walk-in has a built-in sink designed to help clean fish quickly and return it to cold storage. Orange polypropylene cutting boards (part of a set of color coded boards with a specific group of food items assigned to each color) are used to butcher fish. According to Keff, the boards clean up nicely and score points with health inspectors.

For service Keff stores portioned seafood on the line in a 14-foot Randell refrigerator with pull-out drawers. (The unit is made from two seven-foot units welded together.) It features inserts raised above counter level into which smaller pans of prepped ingredients may be dropped. "The raised inserts mean that the drawers are the full depth of the refrigerator unit," Keff explains. "They're not cut short, to prevent them from bumping into the pans as they sometimes do in units where pans are dropped into the open top." Also on the hot line are a 90,000-BTU Montague wok responsible for turning out salt and pepper crab ("It cooks quickly, allows a lot of temperature control, and really sort of caramelizes the outside," according to Keff) and Pitco fryers used for one of Flying Fish's signature dishes, a whole fried rockfish.

"My kitchen doesn't look much different from a kitchen that isn't geared to seafood," insists Kevin Meeker who, with wife Janet Meeker, founded Philadelphia Fish & Company in 1983 and more recently Cork in Westmont, New Jersey. "I've been open almost 25 years, working out of the same space. I'd love to have a refrigerated cut room, but we're already limited when it comes to space," says Kevin, whose 2,400-square-foot restaurant caters to 200 covers per night. "When something needs to be replaced, I try to keep up with the times. Other than that, I use a lot of very basic equipment." For instance, when Meeker's mesquite charcoal grill, designed by the chef himself, wore out, he replaced it with a MagiKitch'n char-grill, which handles not only fish but chicken and chops as well. An older flattop range gave way to a Vulcan oven with a partial flattop as well as open burners and a salamander, which turn out the likes of sautéed skate with caper butter and pan-roasted halibut with leek fondue, carrot nage, and snap pea salad. A Blodgett convection oven, dedicated to dishes like monkfish osso buco served with Israeli couscous, pancetta braised escarole, and littleneck clam broth, rounds out the classic mix.

On the smaller end of the equipment scale, Meeker, like many other fish-friendly chefs, relies on slotted fish spatulas for flipping fish ("no tongs allowed--they damage fillets," he states). For plating and finishing, Meeker turns to surgical tweezers for positioning vegetables and oversized spoons for saucing.

Leave it to Dave Pasternak to wrestle white linen results from blue collar materials. Pasternak, chef/co-owner of Esca in Manhattan, is perhaps America's most hands-on seafood chef. (He catches them, he cleans them, and he cooks them.) Currently he's into what he calls a piastra--Italian for plancha, which is Spanish for griddle--a flat cast-iron griddle that fits over gas burners. "They're store-bought things, made by Lodge," Pasternak says. "There are fancier ones out there, but I don't use them." Calamari and an assortment of fish fillets get a simple seasoning with oil, salt, and pepper before sizzling on the piastra and emerging moist within and crisp on the surface. "Sometimes I roll the fish in bread crumbs, too," Pasternak adds. Weighting fish during cooking contributes to a crisp outer texture, whether fish is prepared on a piastra, grill, or sauté pan. For his custom-made weights, Pasternak turned to a plumber friend, who designed a stainless-steel frame into which he poured cement. "They range in weight so I can use the best weight for whatever it is I'm cooking," Pasternak explains.

So what do all these chefs have in common? Whether their kitchens are gleaming new or comfortably worn, it's the unflagging, scrupulous care they give to the handling of seafood that always comes first.

Tips for safe handling
The fish handling gospel according to über food scientist Harold McGee can be found on pages 202 through 206 of his recently revised On Food and Cooking. Here are a few highlights from McGee and the chefs who contributed to this article.
• Temperature is the best friend--and worst enemy--of fresh fish. Fish kept on ice (more specifically in a 32°F "slush") lasts twice as long as fish kept in a 40°F refrigerator.
• Air is the second enemy: keep fish wrapped in plastic before icing or go one better and, like Rick Moonen, vacuum seal it.
• Oysters: take them out of the bags as soon as possible and transfer them to hotel pans. Cover with wet newspaper. "It's low-tech," Christine Keff admits, "but it works well. News-paper doesn't dry out."
• Clams and mussels: store in buckets with holes poked into their bottoms and set into another bucket. "They both tend to throw a lot of liquid, and you don't want them sitting in that," Keff explains.
• Buy fish whole, cleaned, or "round" whenever possible, as opposed to fillets.
• Keep whole fish iced. Shaved ice is better suited to this purpose than cubes. To prevent fish from sitting in water as the ice melts, place whole fish, preferably wrapped in plastic, in a perforated container set into a solid container.