A Sea of Options
More so than just about any other animal protein, the seafood category is vast, encompassing everything from fish like salmon and tuna to crustaceans to mollusks and more. Within these broader groups are dozens of species, each with its own nuanced taste, texture, and menu applications. Fish is often touted as being healthier and in some cases more sustainable than poultry and meats. Although consumers still prefer wild-caught fish to aquaculture five to one, per the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, new technologies and eco-friendly methods continue to advance and expand the pool of options. Special certifications like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch also help guide operators in sourcing sustainable species.
As with most industries, COVID negatively impacted the seafood sector with commercial fish revenues plunging as much as 45 percent in July 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At the same time, a sizable portion of consumers tried seafood for the first time during the pandemic, and demand is on the upswing.
Seafood Without the Fish
Plant-based seafood hasn’t yet enjoyed the explosive growth of meat and milk alternatives. In 2020, the plant-based meat sector had grown to $1.4 billion, and the alternative milk category was even higher at $2.5 billion. By comparison, plant-based fish sales only amassed $12 million. But that could soon be changing.
As of June, 83 companies were developing alternative seafood compared with only 29 brands in 2017—and investors are taking note. In January 2020, Good Catch, which specializes in plant-based seafood, raised $32 million. A year later, cell-based aquaculture outfit BlueNalu raised $60 million. (Good Food Institute / Plant-Based Foods Association)
Unlike some animal proteins, seafood has long enjoyed a health halo for its rich mineral and vitamin content and omega-3 fatty acids. Nevertheless, consumers do harbor some concerns around fish. Eighty-five percent of the general population are concerned about mercury content, and 83 percent are concerned about plastic contamination and heavy metals. (Changing Tastes)
The first half of 2021 proved a major boon to the seafood category in terms of online reviews. Between December 2020 and June 2021, restaurant reviews involving seafood skyrocketed 130 percent, beating out every other category, including burgers, pizza, chicken, American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and more. (Merchant Centric)
An Ocean of Options
While adventurous consumers relish the opportunity to try new seafood items, restaurants definitely favor crowd-pleasers. Operators reported that if price weren’t a consideration, they would be most likely to menu shrimp, salmon, lobster, crab, and scallops. Among the fish less likely to appear on menus are shark, anchovy, and bonito. (Changing Tastes)
Taking the Plunge
Even though comfort foods enjoyed a surge in popularity during COVID, some consumers did take their eating habits into new territory—specifically of the aquatic persuasion. During the pandemic, a whopping 26 percent of general consumers bought seafood for the first time ever. (Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute / Datassential)
Restaurant Shout-Out: Wild Mexican Prawns
avec West Loop | Chicago
The second location of One Off Hospitality’s award-winning concept Avec marries Mediterranean and Mexican flavors. Served alongside fresh-made pita, the Wild Mexican Prawns are seasoned in rose petal shatta (a Middle Easten hot sauce with a jalapeño base) and cherry tomatoes.
Restaurant Shout-Out: Smoked Salmon Kabobs
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen | Fullerton, California
Blending the cuisines of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Khan Saab infuses its Smoked Salmon Kabobs with an array of spices. Marinated in dijon mustard, chile-garlic paste, and fresh dill, wild-caught salmon is smoked with charcoal and cloves and then pan-fried with turmeric.
Restaurant Shout-Out: Hokkaido Scallop Crudo
Mizu | Charlotte, North Carolina
Mizu spotlights Asian flavors using fresh, local ingredients. Its Hokkaido Scallop Crudo is served in lemongrass water and rice vinegar and topped with sesame seeds, black salt, togarashi, microgreens, and yuzu kosho, a Japanese chile condiment.
Restaurant Shout-Out: Monkfish & Clams
Wood | Chicago
For the colder months ahead, Wood chef Devin Kreller created a hearty fish entrée drawing flavor combinations of pork, shellfish, and smoke. The Monkfish & Clams dish is gently cooked using sous vide and then warmed in brown butter. The umami factor is further kicked up through a sauce made of fresh clam juice, house-made bacon, white wine, and butter. It is served atop baby kalettes and potato purée.