It all changed in 2009 with the news that the bluefin tuna could be headed for the endangered-species list. Among the nation's top chefs there was hand-wringing and soul-searching—but, most of all, idea-hatching. And now, the same pioneering spirit that led wary Americans beyond the realm of filet mignon and boneless chicken breast and into the fat-riddled, flavor-packed territory of heirloom pork and lamb ribs has forced us to reinvent the Great American Seafood Diet. "I'm scared to death about the future of fish," says Sean Brock, the executive chef of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. "But because so many species were being overfished, we're seeing all these new ones."
Brock's restaurant is at the vanguard of this new movement (Tim McKee's Sea Change in Minneapolis and Stephen Barber's Fish Story in Napa Valley are others). To them, sustainable seafood is more than a priority—it's the mission. "I can tell customers not just where fish came from but how it was caught, the time it was pulled from the water, and the name of the fishing boat's captain," says Sam Talbot, of the recently opened Imperial No. Nine in New York City. Talbot set up a computerized war room so he can monitor seafood-watch programs. "Customers don't really need to know all the details," he says. "I do the research for you."
"People are used to eating it overcooked, and that brings out an unpleasant fishy flavor," says Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. When it's grilled medium-rare, though, it has the meaty texture of swordfish. And when it's raw, it tastes mouth-fillingly fatty. The amberjack farmed in Australia and Japan has gotten the avoid stamp from seafood-scrutinizing organizations, but there's nothing wrong with the stuff that's caught wild, usually by the hook-and-line method off the East Coast. Brock cures and smokes the belly to make bacon, pickles it, and serves raw slices with espelette-pepper vinaigrette. At Reef in Houston, it's grilled and paired with Thai long beans, plantains, and pomegranate.
Wine Pairing: A vigorous, muscular swimmer, amberjack is so firm-fleshed that the U.S. Navy named two submarines after it. Its best match, therefore, is a wine with some balls, like New Zealand's 2009 Cairnbrae Sauvignon Blanc, which carries notes of grapefruit and mint.
When salmon became not just humdrum but also worrisome, this orange-fleshed fish gave chefs an option. "Char is a perfect alternative to farmed salmon," says Tim McKee of Sea Change in Minneapolis. "The low-impact method of farming is much preferable to the risky and problematic methods used for salmon." Even more important, char has a fine flavor and a rich, flaky flesh that falls somewhere between salmon and trout. It's versatile, too, served crisp-skinned by McKee alongside white beans and lightly pickled artichokes, or cured, as chefs Bowman Brown and Viet Pham do at Forage in Salt Lake City, paired with crab and pumpernickel. At the John Dory in New York City, April Bloomfield turns it into a pate to be slathered on warm, buttery Parker House rolls.
Wine Pairing: Rather than matching a rich fish with a decadent wine, embrace contrast in this case—Noella Morantin's 2008 Touraine Gamay has a youthful lightness to it, but it's still a serious bottle.
The strength and speed of cobia make it beloved by sportfishing veterans, while chefs are attracted to its meaty, swordfishesque quality. The cobia that lands on your plate is likely to have come from well-run fisheries in the U.S. rather than less environmentally conscious overseas outfits. At RM, Rick Moonen's sustainably minded seafood spot in Las Vegas, the fish is crusted in black olives and served with roasted cauliflower and an airy pomegranate sauce. Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, marinates it in miso, then drops it in an herb-spiked dashi broth with a generous dollop of crabmeat. In Miami, Area 31 chef Michael Reidt turns cobia into ceviche, its firm texture a fine foil for creamy avocado, crunchy puffed rice, and red-pepper sorbet.
Wine Pairing: The fish's go-go flavor needs an assertive, bordering-on-cocky partner. Enter Aglianico del Taburno 2006, an Italian red with hints of sweet cherries and smoke.
This succulent fish, known as walu in Hawaii, has snow-white flesh that falls into big, buttery flakes after one prod of your fork. An impostor has recently soiled the escolar's reputation, a cheaper fish sometimes sold under its noble name that does not pack the same flavor or panache. You can be sure that what Tyson Cole grills over oak and crowns with myoga (similar to ginger) and candied citrus at Uchi in Austin is the real deal. So, too, are the raw slices Ethan Stowell tops with avocado, pickled radish, and hot coppa (a spicy Italian salumi) at Anchovies & Olives in Seattle.
Wine Pairing: Piedmontese Gavi is always a good bet with a gamy fish, and the 2009 bottling from Franco M. Martinetti offers mouthwatering acidity and a sophisticated flavor.
Offering whole fresh sardines, the new chef obsession, is the piscine equivalent of serving a pig's head—the antidote to America's fetish for headless, boneless, and skinless. "The sardine's got character," says April Bloomfield of the John Dory in New York City. "It's oily and complex, not just a bland old piece of white fish, which is why some people don't like it and others love it." It's a bonus that sardine populations in the Pacific and off the coast of Portugal are bountiful and that the fish contains ueberhealthy omega-3s. At the Bristol in Chicago, Chris Pandel grills sardines whole and lays them over crunchy chickpea fritters alongside spicy aioli, while at Commis in Oakland, James Syhabout cures then smokes sardines from nearby Monterey Bay and partners them with wild fennel and rhubarb juice.
Wine Pairing: A funky little fish needs a funky little bottle, and the 2007 Falanghina from La Sibilla, in Campania, Italy, has more than enough moxie to get the job done.
The mackerel's fatty flesh and brash oceanic flavor might account for its abundant population—it's not to everyone's taste. But the Spanish mackerel, unlike its cousin the Boston, has developed a devoted chef following because it has a subtle side. Caught in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, it's best fresh, when its fishy edge hasn't had a chance to dominate. At the Inn at Dos Brisas, near Houston, Craig Shelton keeps it raw, thinly sliced, and touched with tart yuzu, white soy, and sweet apple. At the Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia, Hugh Acheson pan-roasts and adds olives, oregano, and citrus.
Wine Pairing: Lavadores de Feitoria Douro Tinto 2009, from Portugal, does for Spanish mackerel what Cristiano Ronaldo (also Portuguese) does for Real Madrid. That is, it scores consistently.
More on the Seafood Renaissance:
The Best Little Fish Shacks in the Big City
The World's Greatest Gourmet Seafood . . . in a Can
The Reinvented Raw Bar
Also on Details.com:
The World's Best Three Restaurants That Take Seafood To The Next Level
How to Buy Seafood