Converging trends are making seafood an ideal protein for enterprising chefs. In casual and independent restaurants across the country, diners are looking for healthier options and assertive taste profiles, as well as consistency.
“I think one of the driving forces of seafood consumption is the fact that the dishes themselves are so attractive,” says menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Co.
“The fact that these dishes are also healthy makes it easier for us to order them. It is an added bonus.”
Many industry experts believe that seafood provides one of the greatest opportunities for culinary innovation, for a host of reasons.
“When consumers sit down for a restaurant meal, they are more likely to order a seafood dish over anything else,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of the NPD Group. Balzer says that 29 percent of patrons at a sit-down restaurant order seafood as opposed to the 20 percent who choose the second-most-popular protein, chicken.
“The fact that so many people are inclined to order seafood when they go out provides a huge opportunity for new versions of dishes as well as the opportunity to try new species,” Balzer adds.
Coast to coast, enterprising chefs already have gotten the message.
“I do a lot of research and I like to try new inventive seafood dishes, but I won’t do things unless they work,” says Anthony Lamas, owner of Louisville, Kentucky-based Seviche, a Latin restaurant.
“It is about the balance of flavors. In general I would say seafood is becoming more approachable because people are willing to try more things.” And Lamas gives his customers plenty of inspiring seafood dishes to choose from.
Some of his seafood specialties include Line Caught Bigeye Tuna Seviche with sesame, scallion, coconut and ginger, Wild Striped Bass with tomatillo, crispy leeks and chorizo-shrimp chaufa, and Hamachi Tiradito with rocoto chile, ginger and soy.
Lamas likes to prepare his seafood dishes with the freshest products available.
“I think people are getting educated about good products. It makes a big difference about how the fish are raised and how fresh the product is. When you eat something in season it is fabulous,” Lamas says.
“It is as different as a tomato in season versus one that is not in season.”
Despite being in the middle of the country and far from either coast, Lamas receives his products within hours of being caught.
“We have the largest UPS hub in America right here in Louisville and so we are able to bring things in before any other part of the country. Within hours I am able to get fresh product from the ocean,” he says.
Jason Hicks, chef partner of the newly opened Jones Wood Foundry in New York City, a popular English pub with an emphasis on food, agrees that fresh is a non-negotiable.
“Seafood has to be served super fresh or it won’t be good. When you serve a fresh fish, it is a lot more satisfying to serve than a pork chop,” Hicks says.
“There’s also a much bigger selection of products from the sea than the land when it comes to pricing.”
Hicks’ menu includes several seafood dishes, with more to come.
“We are known for the fish and chips, so we sell a ton of those. The satisfaction is doing something simple but better than anyone else.”
Hicks says the key ingredient for the dish is a perfectly prepared batter. “Our batter is hollow and crispy. It is tough to do a perfect batter seven days a week. We have to make sure everyone uses scales and measurements. It is like working with pastry, you have to be on the money with your recipe or it won’t come out right, and it is like that with the batter.”
Other seafood dishes on the Jones Wood Foundry menu include Striped Bass with white carrot, Whole Grilled Dorado over fresh fennel, and Skate with minted mushy peas and balsamic sauce.
Hicks plans to take his kitchen staff down to New York’s Chinatown to source live eel, which he plans to cook with red wine, potatoes and cheese in a dish similar to the English classic, Shepherd’s Pie.
Innovation on the menu
Moving forward, many chefs are looking to add creative seafood dishes to the menu.
At Hooters, a 430-unit casual dinnerhouse chain based in Atlanta, several seafood dishes are in the research and development phase.
“Seafood is a category that grows for us every year. Right now we are testing a shrimp taco in Tampa, and we are developing several seafood appetizers,” says Chuck Riley, vice president of purchasing for Hooters.
“I am also looking into other fish dishes, such as fried oysters.”
With many Hooters units located in the Sunshine State, Riley says that seafood is a natural menu addition.
“The first thing people do when they come to Florida is order seafood at the restaurant of their choice,” Riley says.
Riley says there are a couple of reasons Florida customers lean toward seafood besides the state’s obvious proximity to water.
“I think over the years consumers have gravitated to seafood because they are getting a reliable and consistent product every time. And let’s face it they don’t always want to prepare seafood at home.”
At the opposite end of the country in Portland, Oregon, Bamboo Sushi’s general manager, Brandon Hill, can relate.
“Consumers don’t know how to cook fish well, and if you want to know the truth, very few chefs can cook a piece of fish well, either.”
Hill says business is brisk and plans are in the works to open a second Bamboo Sushi, which is a neighborhood restaurant that specializes in bold flavors.
Bamboo Sushi’s biggest sellers are albacore tuna, salmon and Dungeness crab. Hill also says that health concerns are rising on the part of his customers.
“We do notice that most of our customers are ordering more healthy items even above and beyond seafood. Probably one out of eight people that come into the restaurant are looking for gluten-free.” Hill also says he is noticing a heightened interest in menu items that are soy-free. “I think that is because soy is something that the body doesn’t digest well.”
And it’s good for you
Several studies have shown that seafood is a healthier choice than several other proteins.
The Journal of the American Medical Association found that even modest consumption (once or twice a week) of fish with high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids was found to reduce the risk of coronary death by 36 percent and the overall death rate by 17 percent.
Other healthy benefits in seafood are derived from vitamins A and D, which are found in fish liver oils, as well as high levels of the B complex vitamins, particularly niacin, B-12 and B-6.
Wayne Samiere, who is the founder, president and CEO of the Honolulu Fish Co., agrees that seafood’s healthy halo is helping move product in a big way.
“I see a big trend and more recognition of what is a healthy product. More and more products are carrying nutritional labeling, and the customer is demanding that.”
Samiere says he notices more inquiries about seafood coming from retirement communities and high-end resorts, which most often are frequented by the Baby Boomer generation. “It is clear that the nature of that customer is creating a groundswell support for healthier menu items. But that’s not all — we are seeing some pretty progressive menu items as well.”
In addition to the demand for healthier menu items, Samiere says that many consumers are interested in sustainable products, even if they don’t fully understand what that means.
“I don’t think sustainability is understood at the consumer level. They want to support green practices, but they really don’t understand it,” he says. “Often the waitstaff and the chef don’t understand it too well, either.”
Samiere says his company is trying to educate consumers as well as the foodservice industry about where their seafood of choice is coming from.
“Customers have a need to know where something is from. There is a trend to want to understand, ‘Where does the tuna come from, and what is the entity that is going to stand up for quality?’ ”
George Atsangbe, director of food and beverage for Houston-based Joe’s Crab Shack, says the chain is currently collaborating with fisheries to institute a program that would replace every fish sold in its restaurants. “We will keep track of everything we sell and we will put a replacement back in the ocean.”
Shrimp and more shrimp
In addition to sustainable, Samiere says that customers and chefs alike seek products that are stable, predictable and value-oriented.
“During the past two years, the high end of seafood has melted down into more of a value-oriented presentation. We see a big demand from chefs for things that are constant and stable and predictable in price, as well as quality,” he says.
To that end, Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst for Mintel, says stable and predictable are two of the reasons consumers are finding new shrimp dishes on menus in record numbers.
“Shrimp is everywhere. It has always been the most popular seafood on mainstream menus, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Shrimp tacos are really big right now,” Hayden says.
“People are making the leap from fish tacos to shrimp tacos. I am seeing it both grilled and tempura or deep fried for tacos. Even Taco Bell has put one on the menu.”
Hayden also sees a rise in shrimp and grits menu listings, and she says that shrimp po’ boys are a big trend.
“I am also seeing shrimp added to many other dishes. Chefs are being really creative and doing a lot of surf and turf-like menu items,” Hayden says.
Kruse concurs that seafood as a sandwich protein is growing.
“Every year in Lent there is a bump up. We have seen a huge spike in seafood on sandwiches.”
Kruse says that Uno Chicago Grill has added a shrimp po’ boy with Cajun remoulade.
With escalating commodity prices and rising food costs, purchasers are being careful when it comes to protein buys.
Tom Bivins, executive chef for the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, is very price-conscious when he considers menu items.
“We are trying to be a little more thoughtful about the fish on our menus. When you are buying a fish that comes in at $8 a pound and the useful portion cleans up to $16 a pound, you have to be aware of that,” he says.
“Our customers are looking for great food but not at a price that will shock them all they way to the bank.”
Bivins is charged with the food for three restaurants open to the public and two cafeterias, one for the school, and the other for an insurance company. Bivins says tilapia makes fiscal sense and is a good choice for several menu items.
“We broil it or sometimes we serve it fried, and even occasionally on sandwiches,” he says. “For our insurance company, we are always looking for items that are healthy and light. Tilapia is a great choice.”
Tilapia was also the choice for new menu additions at La Madeleine, a fast-casual chain based in Dallas.
Susan Dederen, senior director of culinary operations for La Madeleine, says the health benefits and low calorie profile of tilapia made it the perfect menu addition.
“We wanted to offer a fish entrée and we wanted to do something that was low in calories. That’s why we chose tilapia. It was mild and it was easy to get it.”
Dederen says the tilapia is served in 4-ounce portions. One of the tilapia dishes is a fillet with a sun-dried tomato pesto cooked in a broth with white wine and vegetable stock.
“We add peppers, green onions and tomato and serve it with rice pilaf. The dish comes in under 500 calories,” she says.
The dish started as a limited-time offer in 2010 and then put on the permanent menu in January 2011.
Dederen says La Madeleine also offers a shrimp and tilapia stew.
“We use our signature tomato basil soup, and we add olives, onions, and tomatoes, and it is served over rice.”
The dish costs $8.99 and has less than 600 calories.
Other chains that have jumped on the tilapia bandwagon include Ruby Tuesday, Friday’s and IHOP.
Seafood’s growing popularity on menus across the country is in large measure due to the pioneering work of Red Lobster, at least according to Kruse.
“Red Lobster really educated the American populace, especially the interior of the country. The work of Red Lobster has made seafood approachable and attractive.”
And Kruse thinks that love affair will only grow stronger.
“I think across the board the consumption of seafood will grow, but I think we are going to see much broader consumption of finfish. We will probably start seeing some species on menus that we haven’t seen before. I think our seafood repertoire will become much broader,” she says.