There are plenty of places where diners in Washington, DC, can find a decent surf and turf. But, instead of steaks, one chef chose to serve his recent six-course seafood dinner with a side of education — and far more than would fit in the small font on a menu.
At a pop-up dinner in a warehouse-like event space this month, Mackenzie Kitburi of Capital Taste Food Group invited Bay experts to talk about water quality, federal regulations and invasive species while guests consumed a half-dozen types of fish they’re not likely to find on many local menus.
Kitburi said his food group, which runs a series of one-off events like this one in lieu of a restaurant, aims “to help find solutions to environmental issues using food.”
To that end, Kitburi’s menu at an event simply titled, “The Bay,” starred lesser known fish, such as Spanish mackerel, bluefish and sugar toads. In a bid to boost more local fisheries, he worked with Congressional Seafood Co., a distributor in Jessup, MD, to source species that — though common in the Bay and beloved by recreational fishermen — rarely make it into restaurant dishes.
The focus of conversation was the invasive blue catfish, served two ways and sampled by dinner guests while a seafood distributor talked about his company’s role in trying to harvest them into oblivion. Introduced to the region in the 1970s, blue catfish have been eating their way throughout much of the Bay watershed ever since, and are suspected of throwing local ecosystems out of whack and devouring beloved native species such as blue crabs.
Throughout dinner, a whole blue catfish was on display at the chef’s station so diners could see the perpetrator and understand the role they can play as consumers of seafood. So far, fishermen, chefs — and consumers who are increasingly eating the flaky, white fillets that come from blue catfish— are the sole predators and the most promising way to reduce the population.
“If…chefs can influence the market by putting these fish on our menus, then we can both help eliminate the threat of the invasive species and support a local economy that is vital to our region,” Kitburi said.
For his event, Kitburi wanted participants to walk away with more than a belly full of interesting seafood. So, while the chefs worked feverishly to plate the next course, he handed over the stage to various Bay experts to discuss their work to revive the estuary.
“Our job really is to try to restore not only water quality but living resources in the Bay watershed,” said Nick DiPasquale, who helps coordinate the federal-state restoration effort as director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
“This is important,” Dipasquale said, as diners bit into Spanish mackerel served raw in a spicy peanut sauce, “the Bay has a land-to-water ratio of 14 acres of land to one acre of water. That means that anything that happens on the land is going to have an impact on the water.”
Kitburi isn’t the only chef casting a spotlight on Bay species, from the invasive ones that need to be consumed to the little-known fish that display the Chesapeake’s abundance and provide new revenue streams for local watermen.
Chef Kyle Bailey recently opened a seafood restaurant on DC’s southeast waterfront that’s sourcing products directly from Chesapeake Bay watermen through the region’s first community-supported fishery. Though the restaurant’s menu pays tribute to New England-inspired dishes, The Salt Line will source much of the fish and shellfish from its backyard estuary, including species like eel, popular in Europe and Asia but rarely served in this country
The Salt Line will work with traditional seafood distributors and be the first restaurant in the city to work with the Annapolis-based Old Line Fish Co. to source seafood directly from producers through a national program called Dock to Dish.
Other Washington restaurants have expanded their buy-local ethos from produce and pigs to include more local seafood. The Dabney’s chef-owner, Jeremiah Langhorne, devotes his entire menu to reviving Chesapeake Bay or mid-Atlantic cuisine with a strong focus on seafood. Langhorne’s bar, for example, is likely the only other place that Washingtonians can find so-called sugar toads on a menu.
He serves the small fish whole, battered and fried as “bar snacks,” at a restaurant where people are looking to try something new. Though the name “sugar toads” might make diners think they’re ordering fried frog legs, the nickname refers instead to the two-bite-size Northern puffer fish.
Tim Sughrue, vice president of Congressional Seafood Co., told diners at Kitburi’s pop-up that sugar toads “taste like chicken.” They were served whole in a sweet soy glaze over carrot kimchi. (The fish was delicious, despite the tiny bones in it, with a flakier texture than chicken.)
Sughrue’s restaurant customers are only beginning to ask for such species, which are otherwise prized by recreational fishermen. The chefs are trying to raise awareness that the Chesapeake Bay has more to offer than oysters on the half-shell, important as they are.
“In my observations of the Chesapeake Bay, I believe it’s coming back,” Sughrue told diners at the Bay dinner. “A large part of that has to do with the aquaculture industry and the restoration of oyster reefs.”
Portraying the story of water-filtering oysters to restaurant eaters has paved the way for other species to wind up on more menus. A growing number of chefs have warmed to serving blue catfish, for example, because, like farmed oysters, providing a market for them benefits the Bay — which still needs all the help it can get.
“A question I get a lot is, ‘You guys have been working at [cleaning the Bay] for almost 35 years; when are you going to be done?’” DiPasquale said at the dinner. “My answer is never. Humans continue to not understand the consequences of their actions. The blue catfish is a perfect example of that.”