Chefs dive into new fish and flavor combinations to perfect raw seafood.

Look for a surge in the popularity of sustainable seafood. Non-traditional fish and sustainability were subjects that topped the National Restaurant Association’s highly anticipated “What’s Hot” survey and its 2015 trend forecast.

Many chefs say sustainable fish that has been simply prepared tastes better. It makes sense, then, that raw fish—in the form of crudo, ceviche, sashimi, sushi, poke, and tartare—has grown in popularity from coast to coast and even in between, as chefs look for ways to highlight novel, lesser-known species and creatively combine seafood with other interesting ingredients.

Raw seafood presents a lighter, nutritionally sound way to eat, one that is rich in brain-boosting, heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids and lower in mercury when harvested sustainably.

Creative Crudo

The Italian word for raw, crudo refers to raw fish and resembles the Japanese method of serving sashimi—simply sliced and served undressed or lightly dressed in a quick marinade.

Though crudo’s nothing new, creative combinations and the use of unusual types of seafood have contributed to its rise in popularity among chefs, especially at restaurants with a sophisticated seafood or raw bar program.

At Row 34 in Boston, chef de cuisine Francisco Millan pairs thinly sliced yellowfin tuna, marinated just slightly in a small amount of lime juice and simple syrup, with a black garlic aioli for some umami-laden sweetness.

“You want to marinate the fish immediately before serving for only a minute because you want the fish to pick up some of the flavor but not cook like a ceviche,” he says.

Chef Millan’s salmon belly crudo has become a crowd favorite: Dressed lightly in yuzu juice, olive oil, and salt, the tender, fatty fish comes with a Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise, “which has a nice acidity because of the rice vinegar and sriracha sauce,” he says. For a distinctive topping, Chef Millan makes a powdered nori by lightly grilling seaweed to remove the moisture and blending it in a coffee mill for a play on a typical spicy salmon sushi roll. In the fall, he’ll swap the salmon belly for seasonal black bass, which has a sweeter whitefish flavor compared with its siblings and can stand up to a raw treatment just like the fattier salmon belly.

At FIG & OLIVE in Los Angeles, owner Laurent Halasz’s chef team pairs crudo selections with a variety of seasonal, specialty olive oils. The salmon crudo with orange, grapefruit, dill, lemon, and scallions gets a drizzling of medium-bodied, floral Cobrancosa olive oil from Portugal, while tuna crudo with cucumber, chive, and cilantro comes with a dressing of Spanish Picual olive oil.

“We like to use both complimentary and contrasting flavors for our crudo. For example, the rich and fatty salmon crudo is a perfect match for a buttery, creamy Cobrancosa,” says Halasz. “On the contrary, if you’re looking for a big olive oil taste of green fruit and pepper, the Picual is a great choice for cutting through the richness and meatiness of the tuna, but also complementary since tuna and black pepper make a timeless pairing.”

Texturizing Toppers

In the Windy City, Chef Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish & Oyster looks to combine different textures when working with raw seafood.

“Crudos can often be one note texturally, so we try to offer exciting layers,” says Chef Tentori of his snapper crudo. “We take sunchokes and peel them, then fry the skins to create a crispy component. Then we make a purée of the rest of the sunchoke to add a creamy layer. We also add pomegranate seeds and a raw radish vinaigrette to the raw snapper. When you take a bite, the seeds almost feel like a candy crunch and the flavors are perfectly balanced.”

At Café Dupont in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef David Fritsche prepares a fluke crudo appetizer with tender Asian pear, pickled Brussels sprouts, and crispy fried shallots, serving the fish on an elaborate display of dry ice for extra drama.

Ben Ford, Chef/owner of FFS LAX at Los Angeles’ international airport and Ford’s Filling Station at the JW Marriott in Los Angeles, also looks to crispy toppers in the form of beet chips and toasted hazelnuts for his crudo made with sea bass, fennel, avocado, and chilies. After lightly dressing the fish with olive oil, he tops the thin slices—overlapped by avocado slices—with a salad of the fennel, preserved lemon, Serrano chiles, mint, lemon juice, and more olive oil, then garnishes with the nuts and beets.

Novelty Fish

Aside from highlighting new flavors and textures, raw seafood applications make a great stage for showcasing less familiar, underused species.

Though salmon may seem mainstream to some, Chef Nicki Hobson of Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston sources a special, sustainable variety from the Faroe Islands in the colder waters of the North Atlantic Ocean near Denmark. According to the Faroe Fish Farmers Association (fffa), the Faroese aquaculture industry has a long and proud history that dates back to 1967 and combines ideal natural conditions with a commitment to sustainable salmon farming practices.

“This salmon has a fattier texture than other types of salmon and loses its richness when cooked, so I prefer to serve it cold-smoked or as a tartare or crudo,” says Chef Hobson, who makes a quick marinade for the fish with onion, cucumber, chives, sesame oil, lime juice, and a touch of sriracha. To prevent the seasonings from cooking the raw fish, she dresses the crudo (slices) or tartare (diced chunks) with the marinade just before serving, garnishing the dish with vegetable root chips.

When it comes to ceviche, Chef Hobson uses a Nova Scotian farm-raised tautog, a hoodfish with large lips and teeth. “This type of fish eats a lot of shellfish and crustaceans, so it has a sweet flavor,” Chef Hobson says. But with a texture somewhere between bass and flaky cod, this meatier fish tastes best when tenderized a little longer in acid.

The New Ceviche

Using unusual types of fish and reverting to lesser known, ancient techniques have helped elevate ceviche from an afterthought in Mexican restaurants to an innovative way to serve raw seafood.

At Bar Takito in Chicago, Chef David Dworshak borrows from Peruvian cuisine for his leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, ceviche. The flavorful, citrus-based fish stock serves as a creamy marinade for Suzuki bass, a sustainably farmed ocean and fresh-water hybrid out of Texas with a hint of earthiness and sweetness.

“We make our leche de tigre by blending the fish filet scraps back into a sauce with lemongrass, galangal, chilies, and a little turmeric for color,” Chef Dworshak says. But instead of cooking for hours, the fish is barely marinated, similar to a typical crudo application, and paired with purple potatoes, giant-sized Peruvian choclo corn, jalepeño, and fresh basil.

Also in Chicago, the Peruvian restaurant Tanta takes a similar approach with its ceviches, spelled cebiches, which are freshly dressed to order. Its tiraditos, or carpaccio-like dishes, showcase both Peruvian and Asian flavors in the form of raw fish lightly marinated in spice-forward sauces. Think creamy scallop leche de tigre with avocado chalaca, tossed with tomatoes, onions, limes, and aji amarillos, or Peruvian hot chili peppers.

Recette in New York’s West Village takes a similar approach with a creamier marinade for its raw Hamachi and uni combination. In this case, the marinade—made with sea beans and harissa—represents more of an airy foam than a heavy sauce, which would otherwise weight the delicate sea urchin.

From casual eateries to fine-dining restaurants, raw bars and fresh fish have become as common as craft cocktails. It’s a new era of modern sushi—and chefs have taken to it swimmingly.

Feature, Menu Innovations