The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

The Last Fish: Dinner at Black Salt

May 19th, 2009 · No Comments · Posted in Blog, Sustainability

Pan roasted Australian barramundi

Pan roasted Australian barramundi

A year ago in this space we scolded Jeff Black, owner of one of the District of Columbia’s premier “sustainable” seafood restaurants, Black Salt, for serving fish species listed as “avoid” or merely “good alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Red snapper, monkfish, big eye tuna–all served up to no less a gathering than a group from the Washington-area chapter of the American Inistitute of Wine and Food (AIWF).

Since that time, Black has remained defiant. At a sustainable seafood conclave hosted by the Smithsonian Institution earlier this year, he called ratings published by groups such as Monterey Bay Aqauarium “simplistic.” And he articulated an argument we’ve heard from other rogue chefs: if consumers focus their appetites only on fish rated as the best choices, soon those species will be wiped out, along with all the other overfished fish in the seas. (No matter that the “excellent” choices usually come from tightly managed fisheries in places like Alaska, Australia and New Zealand.)

Meanwhile, however, the New York  Times’ Mark Bittman was called out and spanked hard by environmentalists for publishing a red snapper recipe in the grey lady’s food section. Bittman apologized, calling the appearance of red snapper–overfished and rated “avoid”–a “screwup.”

So I was especially curious to see how Jeff Black would approach this year’s AIWF event. I can now report that the food in all its many courses was superb. The fish tilted more toward the favorable end of what the ratings groups would call “sustainable,” but not without issues.

For instance, the first course consited of a lovely plate of yellowtail, called “hamachi,” served raw thinly sliced with smoked bacon and capers. Yellowtail only rates a “good alternative” from Seafood Watch if it is farmed in the U.S. Consumers are warned to avoid this particular fish if it originates in Japan or Australia.

“Most farmed yellowtail in the world market originates in Japan. However, with a high reliance on wild-caught fish to create feed and serious concerns over disease and water pollution, we recommend avoiding yellowtail farmed in Japan,” Seafood Watch states. “Yellowtail farmed in Australia also has a high reliance on wild-caught fish and there are serious concerns regarding parasites. We therefore also recommend avoiding yellowtail farmed in Australia.”

Seafood Watch likes the yellowtail farmed in the U.S. somewhat better: “While there continue to be some major concerns for U.S. farmed yellowtail, particularly with regard to parasites, good management and a shift toward feed alternatives with less reliance on wild fish are promising signs for the future of this industry. We recommend U.S. farmed yellowtail as a good alternative.”

Unfortunately, we were not told where our yellowtail came from last night.

For the second course we were served Atlantic smelts with a chiffonade of local greens and crispy onions. You can hardly argue with a cold water fish low on the food chain. Unfortunately, neither Seafood Watch nor Blue Ocean Institute publishes a rating for Atlantic smelt. Seafood Watch gives “rainbow smelt” caught in the Great Lakes only a “good alternative” rating, with this explanation:  “Because it is not native to the Great Lakes and could impede the recovery of native species, rainbow smelt is considered an undesirable species. The removal of rainbow smelt is seen as a part of the restructuring of Great Lakes communities, restoring the native predator-prey balance to sustainable, self regulating levels.”

Black Salt's fried soft-shell crab

Black Salt's fried soft-shell crab

Black’s choice of Virginia softshell crab, fried and served with pork belly and green mole sauce, could also be considered controversial. The crab fishery in the Cheseapeake Bay has been declared a “disaster,” with only some recent signs of improving. Seafood Watch has this to say on the subject of blue crabs:  “The blue crab has the potential to support a sustainable fishery due to its one- to two-year maturity period. The crabs are caught in traps that take little bycatch of other marine life. However, many blue crab populations have been on the decline, due to habitat loss caused by pollution and coastal development.”

Following a pasta course, we were offered a choice between bigeye tuna and Australian baramundi.

Unfortunately, bigeye tuna–as last year–still rates no better than “good alternative,” and in some cases is rated “avoid,” depending on where and how it is caught. Says Seafood Watch: “A valuable tuna prized for its sashimi-quality flesh, bigeye is found throughout the world’s oceans. Although bigeye matures and reproduces quickly, the population is declining and the long-term ecosystem effects of removing large predators such as tuna are not fully understood.

“Bigeye is caught with a number of different gears, including trolling and pole and line (a type of hook-and-line gear). There is little to no bycatch when bigeye is caught with this gear, and although there is too much fishing pressure on bigeye worldwide, troll/pole-caught bigeye is a good alternative, while longline-caught bigeye should be avoided.”


Again, we weren’t provided information on the provenance of our bigeye. I opted for the barramundi, a fish I’ve heard a lot about as being an excellent choice for sustainability. This was my first taste, and I was not disappointed. Seafood Watch rates barramundi farmed in the U.S. as “excellent,” but warns against barramundi imported from Asia.

“A native of the tropical waters of northern Australia, Southeast Asia and southern China, barramundi is a prized sport fish in Australia. Known for its good taste and texture, barramundi is now farmed in the U.S. and becoming widely available to Americans. Barramundi is well-suited to aquaculture since it’s hardy and fast growing. It’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids which have beneficial health effects to humans. The way in which they are farmed in the U.S. (in a closed recirculating system) eliminates the risks of fish escapes and disease transfer, and pollution. In other areas of the Indo-Pacific, barramundi is commonly farmed in open net pens or cages that pose a variety of problems including risks of disease, pollution, and escaped fish. Imported barramundi should therefore be avoided.”

The skinny on barramundi is so good, you wonder why our local Whole Foods doesn’t sell it. Hello? Whole Foods?

I give Black Salt high marks for preparation, but it remains a mystery why this restaurant–which bills itself as promoting sustainable seafood–can’t stick with “excellent” choices, or give a better explanation for what it is serving, especially to a gathering of the American Institute of Wine and Food.

Apparently, Jeff Black insists on playing things his own way.  

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