Dining out can often involve eating out in excess of sodium, calories, portions and price tags, especially if you’re eating at a fancy steakhouse or a chain restaurant offering fried chicken or overdone tacos. Seafood, despite the fact that high quality fish and shellfish can command high prices, is generally a healthier alternative – the operative word here being usually.
While the health benefits of eating fish, especially when compared to something like a burger, are many, some unfortunate industry truths lurk below the surface. Like the fact that some seafood is caught illegally, or that oysters can cause disease outbreaks, or that fish are sometimes recalled nationally. Despite the health benefits, not all seafood is an automatic win-win when it comes to flavor, quality, and, frankly, ethics.
Even in high-end restaurants using high-end ingredients, choosing the right item to order can be an uncertain matter. Whether you base your decision on durability or calorie count, some nautical ingredients are simply a better bet than others. To find out which order to avoid, we spoke to chefs who know a bit about sourcing and serving the best seafood on the market.
For many seafood restaurants worth their salt, preserving and enhancing product quality is of the utmost importance. This is especially evident in a seafood-centric city like New Orleans, hallowed ground for seafood destinations like Red Fish Grill, a French Quarter mainstay where executive chef chris vazquez spotlights the best local seafood in a way that doesn’t bury it in breadcrumbs.
“Seafood is incredibly versatile and there are endless preparations to enjoy, but I think it’s best enjoyed with fresh, seasonal vegetables,” says the chef, who suggests avoiding something like a basket of fried shrimp, due to high levels of fat, sodium and calories. A delicious alternative, he notes, is a local specialty like Creole shrimp. “At Red Fish Grill, we serve ours with heirloom tomatoes, fennel, mirliton, celery, onion, bell pepper and basil, over quinoa. It’s high in protein and gluten-free for those who have dietary restrictions.”
Beyond simple calorie content, however, even more crucial is avoiding irresponsibly farmed fish – an alarming practice that is prevalent in more than one species.
According Craig Riker, executive chef of Finch & Fork at the Kimpton Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara, his no-no is farm-raised Atlantic salmon. “Often these fish are raised in crowded and dirty situations,” he notes. “Farmed salmon can be full of antibiotics and potentially contain highly toxic chemicals.”
If you’re going to order farmed salmon, Riker recommends a New Zealand king salmon, which it offers on its menu. “Ora king is a specially farmed and meticulously raised salmon that has superior flavor and texture. It’s like the wagyu beef of salmon.”
Trojan Guardowner and executive chef of Denver-based TAG Restaurant Group, stresses the importance of ordering fish and seafood, like salmon, that comes from sustainable sources.
“I find it’s really important to do your research and order seafood from places that use sustainably sourced fish,” says Guard. “I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Skuna Bay operation in Vancouver and see what they do to harvest their salmon. There is a lot of attention and care in how they work and what is best for the ecosystem and the environment.
He cites Ocean Era, a similar company in his home state of Hawaii, as another commendable company harvesting kampachi in an environmentally friendly manner. “From a chef’s perspective, you know what you’re getting is consistent in size and taste and we want to make sure we’re keeping the fish and the oceans healthy so future generations can enjoy this delicious product.”
When it comes to avoiding fish from unsustainable sources, Ryley Eckersley de Quaintrelle of Portland says a good rule to follow is to avoid eating large top predators that should stay in the ocean to help preserve the ecosystem.
“I will get small tuna, but not larger tuna species, like bluefin tuna, to maintain a healthy ecosystem,” he says. “Also, never eat anything that’s caught in a net scraping the bottom of the ocean. Another thing to know is where the fish is caught so you don’t contribute to overfishing, as well as the use of slave labor On our menu we use Oregon Coast yellowfin tuna and squid caught by day boat fishermen We buy from small family fishing families products and salmon caught by local tribes.
At Sunda New Asian, with locations in Chicago and Nashville, Executive Chef and Partner Mike Morales takes a similar approach for farmed fish.
“I don’t usually eat tilapia,” he says. “Tilapia is raised on the farm in crowded fish pens and is not a healthy food option. There are better fish alternatives in the world than tilapia. market will be better for your health.”
His suggestions include fish like cod, branzino and rainbow trout. “At Sunda New Asian, we serve delicious miso tanned black cod with a miso glaze, eggplant, herb oil and watermelon radish.”
Salmon and tilapia are known to be two of the worst species of farmed fish to eat, as they have lower nutritional value and are more susceptible to contamination with harmful pollutants.
Devan Giddix, chef of Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House in New Orleans, has similar sentiments about tilapia, saying “It’s a bland, tasteless fish, usually raised with irresponsible farming methods.” Instead, he suggests ordering something local, like the Gulf redfish he serves at his restaurant. “It can help ensure you’re getting the freshest product because it didn’t have to travel far to get to the table.”