Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Farmed Salmon Worth Another Look

Posted By on Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Salmon with pear vinegar cream by John Ash
  • Salmon with pear vinegar cream by John Ash

There are two opinions on farmed salmon. One says that salmon is salmon and it’s good for you no matter where it’s from. The other says farmed salmon is horrible for your body and the environment no matter where it’s from. Whereas though the latter school of thought may have once been the case, in the past few years there have been dramatic changes made in the way salmon is being farmed; it now takes another level of investigation to determine what really is the wave of the future.

John Ash
  • John Ash

Chef John Ash has been involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program since it launched in 1999. The organization is regarded as the most stringent guide of what’s sustainable in terms of fishing and what’s safe for the human body in terms of minerals and pollutants. Currently, farmed salmon is on the “Avoid” list because of environmental concerns from the process and the amount of fish it takes to feed the salmon. The current standard, according to the Seafood Watch, is three pounds of feeder fish for every pound of farmed salmon harvested. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that isn’t sustainable, and that’s one of the main reasons the program does not endorse the practice. But if the wild population of salmon continues to be the only source that’s used for food, even with the best regulations on fisheries it is estimated there will be none left by the end of this generation.

“I’m an old guy,” says Ash at a demonstration this morning for a new company offering sustainably-farmed salmon. “I’ve seen the ups and downs of farmed salmon.” He even took a tour in 1981 of a salmon farm in Norway, but it was less than inspiring. “It was like conventional chicken farming,” he says. “You could literally walk across the water on the backs of the salmon.” This created the need for extensive antibiotics and still resulted in low-quality fish. Fast forward thirty years, and companies are still trying to figure out how to sustainably farm the world’s favorite fish, but things are getting significantly better.

Japanese style roasted salmon by John Ash
  • Japanese style roasted salmon by John Ash

For example, Verlasso, the company he was endorsing and which supplied the fish for a cooking demonstration to about 30 students, media members and fish buyers at the SRJC Culinary CafĂ©, has found a way to control the ratio of feeder fish to 1:1 by supplementing omega 3-rich sardines, anchovies and herring with omega 3-rich yeast borne from algae. Coloring of the flesh comes not from dyes or chemical agents fed to the fish, but from beta carotene harvested from another type of algae, “which is what makes flamingoes pink,” says Verlasso Director Allyson Fish (yes, that’s her real name). The resulting mixture is pressed into pellets and fed to the salmon. As for Ash’s first farm experience, Verlasso is among a new breed of companies expanding the size of their ocean-based pens, giving the fish enough room to keep them from getting sick en masse.

Jennifer Bushman
  • Jennifer Bushman

Despite the slew of feel-good facts about any company, and no matter how environmentally friendly the farms are, the bottom line boils down to taste. Will chefs and consumers buy this? Does it taste better than what’s available now? With endorsements from Ash and chef Jennifer Bushman, who also spoke on behalf of Verlasso this morning, the tide may be turning on the farmed salmon debate. It tastes good, with a fat percentage closer to wild salmon than any other farmed Atlantic salmon (which is by far the most popular farmed salmon species). Ash said, “I don’t think you could tell the difference,” between Verlasso and wild Atlantic salmon. One caveat to this argument, however, is there may not be a chance to tell the difference. Wild Atlantic salmon are all but extinct due to overfishing. Pacific salmon is a different species, therefore will have a different flavor to begin with, farmed or wild.

But no matter how tasty farmed salmon is, wild salmon will always be preferred by top chefs. David Holman, executive chef with the Charlie Palmer restaurant group in Reno, said he has to keep salmon on the menu year-round due to customer demand, but chooses to offer wild salmon when in season. He says customers are always informed of the origin of their fish.

SRJC culinary students taste the lecture
  • SRJC culinary students taste the lecture

Holman cited showcasing local ingredients and seasonal bounty as reasons, but it’s no coincidence that wild salmon does taste better. As a former fishmonger, I have never had anything from a farm that tastes as good as wild salmon. Consumers know this, too. Wild salmon, even at $25 per pound, was nearly impossible to keep in stock when we could get it. Farmed salmon, despite being from a sustainable farm similar to Verlasso, sat neglected in the corner of the case even though it was half the price.

Jodie Lau, of Sonoma County supermarket chain G&G, was on hand with other executives from the market. All seemed impressed with the fish and the company, and Lau said she hoped the market could look into ways to begin carrying the fish year-round. If offered at $10.99 per pound retail, it would be comparable in price to other farmed salmon of lesser quality.

Verlasso is trying to break the stigma of farmed salmon not just for profit, but for the future of the world’s fish supply, says Allyson Fish. The company is working with Seafood Watch in hopes it will become the first farmed salmon to earn a “recommended buy” from the organization. It’s one of six aquaculture companies, the only one producing salmon, vying for this certification. By shooting for the top, this opens the door for other groups like the Marine Stewardship Council to look at farmed fish in a different light, and hopefully help change public perception through education.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Waitresses Talk

Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

WHICH eponymous restaurant can't keep the "Help Wanted" sign out of the window because its owner pays the heroin dealer more often than the employees?WHAT Sonoma-area restaurant owner was spotted over Film Festival weekend pocketing his waitresses' tips?WHO spends his mornings "greeting customers"—a.k.a. blatantly checking out the asses of girls walking by on the sidewalk?WHICH restaurant and pub's clientele provided this overheard gem?: "When it comes to fuck music, it doesn't get any better than Touch, by John Klemmer."WHY is there a different girl every week working the counter at a certain Santa Rosa taqueria?WHERE does the waitstaff at a new, large downtown Santa Rosa eatery disappear to for 15 minutes after they seat their customers?WHEN will a certain vegetarian restaurant change their menu, open on weekends, or pay their workers over the table?HOW many times can a certain Windsor restaurant owner recycle the steamed rice before he finally tosses it out?WHAT body fluid was discreetly added to the order of a well-known real estate investor who's never left anything but pocket change for a tip?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cafe Saint Rose: Onward and Westward

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Mark Malicki, sitting at a small table in his soon-to-be-evacuated restaurant space, says he'll scrape off the gold lettering in the window when he moves out, leaving only the letters "a-i-n-t."Café Saint Rose, after two years on its very cute and very awkward downtown Santa Rosa backstreet, will be moving out of its small Sebastopol Avenue location at the end of March and heading to greener pastures in west Sonoma County. It'll reopen at the property now occupied by Two Crows Roadhouse, five minutes west of Sebastopol on Bodega Highway, in late April.

Two Crows is locally recognized as one of those unfortunate "doomed locations," having hosted a handful of short-lived tenants in the last five years. But it's a divine spot, right on the creek, and Malicki's got the clout and reputation to give it the traffic it deserves. Just this week, in fact, sources tell us he fielded a reservation from Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, and the Kitchen Sisters, NPR hosts and authors of Hidden Kitchens.

Café Saint Rose, which was essentially the Amy Winehouse of the Bohemian's Best Of awards this year (Best Place to Rekindle Love; Honorable Mention for Best Chef and Best Romantic Dinner), has always been invitingly down-home, sometimes showing movies on the wall during dinner. Malicki goes to Farmers' Markets in the morning to buy fresh ingredients and builds his daily menu around what he finds. He says he'll keep as much of the trademark artistic atmosphere at Café Saint Rose as possible, including the large paintings, colorful fixtures, rotary phone and vintage chandelier; he's also looking to reinstate the cue-it-up-yourself record player that was a fixture of the restaurant's early days in the new location. (The current windowsill, cutely carved by customers with cupcakes, hearts and lovers’ initials, will have to stay behind.)

Malicki seemed wistful when I talked to him about leaving the neighborhood, and was especially saddened about the prejudiced fear some customers openly brandished towards the perceived unsavory elements in the area. I myself live in this neighborhood, and was heartened that he's not jumping ship in a move to placate his customers by getting away from the Greyhound station. Rather, it's fairly cut-and-dry: Malicki says his monthly rent's gone up from $1000 to $4000. Goddamn.

In the interim, be sure to hit up some of Malicki's own favorite places, like K&L Bistro in Sebastopol, Della Fattoria in Petaluma, and the Willow Wood in Graton.

I'll never forget the first time I came to Café Saint Rose, weeks after it first opened. After waiting for a couple minutes in an empty dining room, we watched as Mark and his wife burst through the kitchen door, out of breath, flush-faced and glowing with an unmistakable beam. They played it off legit, handed us some menus. Classic. Here's wishing you the best, buddy.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Superburger Rises Again

Posted By on Sun, Mar 16, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The last time I stopped by Gayle’s Superburger, on its final day in business, the atmosphere really wasn't as jovial and congratulatory as it should have been. As a matter of fact, it was decidedly depressing—despite the milestone, the former owners could only muster one other grungy customer in the joint, and he didn’t even know, or seem to care, that it was the last day they’d be serving up their famous King Burgers.

I related this scenario to a few different people later on that night, and I quickly learned that the former owners weren’t what you'd call necessarily well-liked. I remember going to parties at the house next door in the mid-‘90s and listening to the house’s tenants complain about how mean the owners were, which is pretty funny considering that we routinely sneaked over onto Superburger’s roof to drunkenly light off fireworks in the middle of the night, but apparently the sentiment spread throughout the land. Though I never had any truck against the old owners—why would I?—I was surprised to hear some of my best friends vilifying them as if they were the human incarnate of Mr. and Mrs. Satan.

I stopped by the vacated Superburger the next day and ran into Bill Cordell, the new owner, as he prepped the small space for its reopening (that's the transitional phase, pictured above). Things looked promising—Bill was friendly as could be, and Modest Mouse’s “Perfect Disguise” played on the stereo inside, which I know doesn’t have anything to do with food, but still. I asked about the overhaul, and Bill assured me he wouldn’t change the place much, short of scraping off the gum on the counter, slapping on some fresh paint, and making a few non-intrusive additions to the menu.

It took me a while, but I finally got down there today, and even at a late lunch hour the place was filled—only one seat remained at the horseshoe counter. And friends, I didn’t think I’d say this, but the place has changed for the better. You know how, like, you’ve got an old car that you love but it’s kinda fucked up, and you think the reason you love it is because it’s fucked up, but then you take it in and give it a tune-up and wash it and wax it and you’re like, if I loved this fucked up car so much, why didn’t I do this earlier? That’s what Superburger is like now.

Don’t worry—there’s still a pile of newspapers at the door, some old regulars, and the serve-yourself condiment tray on the counter. There’s still the old Schaefer ice cream freezer and the Hamilton Beach milkshake blender. There’s still the fixed stools. But all of these things are simply put to a much better purpose these days. I got a cheeseburger with fries and it was like nothing had changed, except the cheeseburger tasted a lot better and the people around me were a lot happier.

As for the menu, I could tell you about the nifty ingredients, like apple-smoked bacon and gorgonzola cheese. I could tell you about the burgers with cute local names like the St. Helena and the Montecito, about the chicken sandwiches and the sausages. But you know what? All you really need to know is that there’s now a huge jar of jalapeños sitting on the counter, free to be smeared upon your food at will. Hell yes. Count me in.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Burger Joints in the City Designed For Living

Posted By on Sat, Feb 9, 2008 at 4:00 AM

In the middle of last week’s completely soaked Friday, I left the Bohemian office around lunchtime, intending to quickly grab something to eat a block, maybe two blocks away. Instead, and without an umbrella, I wound up running in the pouring rain for a full half-mile.

Why on Earth would I do such a thing, you ask? Because I’d remembered, unfortunately at the last second, that January 31st was Superburger’s last day in business.Gayle’s Superburger, as it's rightfully known, has been in its little corner hovel on 4th & St. Helena since 1974, and a longstanding outpost of mine ever since I started hanging around downtown at age 13. It's what my friends routinely remind me is “my kind of place”—a well-worn horseshoe counter with stationary stools, antique fixtures that’ve been on the walls since they were brand new, and a teeny-tiny kitchen serving up tantalizing burgers big and small (but mostly big). Like many places I’m drawn to, it’s the little touches that matter: like the fact that open containers of relish, onions, and mayonnaise are conveniently placed at every seat, or that a healthy pile of newspapers is always waiting on the counter right as you walk in.

By the time I walked through Superburger’s door last Friday, my clothes were drenched, and it was a fitting get-up for what appeared to be a poignantly low-key farewell after 33 years in business. A couple of cheap mylar balloons hovered above the milkshake machine. Hank Williams whinnied out of the speakers of a kitchen radio. There was only one other guy in the place; he didn’t even know or much seem to care that it was their last day.

I got a King Burger and slathered it with mayo. Took a milkshake to go. Life was bittersweet.

Santa Rosa has lost a hundred great burger joints over the years. Fourth Street Franks, with its prime downtown location and sawdust floor. Heavenly Hamburger, with its brittle, yellowing Sprite sign outside and cozy roadside digs. Ingram’s Chili Bowl, with a truly, truly amazing chili burger, right next to Grossman’s hardware.

Going even further back, there was the Eat and Run on Fourth and Montgomery (the “scarf ‘n barf,” the kids called it) and The Pick Up in Montgomery Village. Down the way on Hahman a bit, there was the The Hi-Q—a great drive-in which eventually got sold and turned into Brooks Burgers, where you could get five burgers for a dollar.

And going way, way back: on Mendocino Avenue, near the old UA5, was a hopping place named after a popular song of the day—Teen Angel.

Santa Rosa can be proud of its burger heritage; after all, this is the city that couldn’t support a short-lived McDonald’s right in the heart of downtown in the early 1980s. Why? Because there were tons of better places to go. The downtown McDonald’s, its tail between its legs, closed up after a year.

But now, with downtown places like Juicy Burger, Broiler Burger, and now, Gayle’s Superburger out of the picture, I’m starting to get worried that McDonald’s might have a chance.

Sebastopol has its Sequoia Drive-In. Cotati has its Mike’s. Cloverdale, god bless ‘em, has both Hamburger Ranch and Pick’s Drive-In. What’ve we got?

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