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Rare Tuna
Comments () | Published April 9, 2007

All the chefs I talked to deplored the state of tuna today. Yet all were quick to tell me that they have been able to procure the good stuff for their restaurants.

Their dishes betray them: Many have contrived ways to get around the tuna problem. At less-premium sushi bars, paper-thin lemon slices are appearing on platters of sashimi as colorful dividers separating the varieties of fish. But they’re there for more than mere aesthetics. A hit of citrus can perk up a slice of otherwise ordinary tuna.

Good sushi bars are not beyond employing some tricks. At Joss in Annapolis, the kitchen has been featuring “a trio of toros,” a dish that allows the restaurant to fly the flag of innovation while obscuring the fact that its tuna isn’t superlative. In each iteration, the tuna is duded up with other ingredients—capped with a mashed paste of mountain yam, spiked with sesame and chili oils, grilled and anointed with a dab of grated radish and spicy ponzu sauce. As Joss shows, masking, if done right, can taste good.

Non-sushi chefs are slicing their tuna into a waferlike thinness for carpaccio or chopping it up into cubes and mixing it with oils and spices for tartare—anything but serving it as a whole, thick steak, where the quality of the fish would come under scrutiny.

At Mendocino Grille, chef Barry Koslow has been serving a dish called “tuna carpaccio.” Shorn into sheer bands, then spritzed with the juice of yuzu, a tart Asian fruit, the tuna is served in a thick, mossy tangle of seaweed. The dish is less about the fish than about the seaweed, the tuna intended mostly to provide a textural counterpoint—not to mention the cachet of its name. But it would be hard to imagine the fish any more stripped of its once-kingly status than this—first cut thin, then bathed in citrus, and finally mixed with another, stronger-tasting ingredient.

Morou Ouattara, the chef at Farrah Olivia, goes to similar extremes for something he calls “shocked tuna.” The shock refers to the blanching technique of dipping an uncooked loin into boiling water, then submerging it in a bucket of chilled soy sauce and red wine. Shocking changes the texture of the fish, masking the mealiness that characterizes so much tuna these days. Meanwhile, the soy sauce accentuates the meatiness of the fish. Ouattara plays up this fact, embroidering the plate with a tiny mound of powder made from dehydrated Burgundy.

“Shock” is the appropriate word for what Ouattara has done because only such a bizarre tactic could turn a fish that is often tasteless into something tasty.

 
Much as I admired the ingenuity of those coping strategies, it only reinforced for me how far tuna had slipped, from something that chefs once promised to get out of the way of to something that needed to be managed.

The more tuna I ate in Washington and beyond, the more I kept coming back to the tuna at the Inn at Little Washington. Why was the tuna at the inn so much better than the tuna I ate everywhere else?

I had thought the difference in taste had mostly to do with price. Mostly it does. But that doesn’t begin to explain the complex set of decisions that occurs before either of chef Patrick O’Connell’s two tuna preparations—the aforementioned Fire and Ice and Tuna Pretending to Be Filet Mignon, in which a thick slab of seared foie gras is set atop an even thicker slab of seared tuna—comes within sight of the inn’s hand-painted, 24-karat-gold dishes.

It starts with O’Connell’s personal buyer, the man responsible for getting him the best tuna possible. The buyer, whose name the chef won’t disclose, also procures tuna for Charlie Trotter’s, Le Bernardin, and Per Se—three of the country’s best restaurants.

The buyer works only in Hawaii, where O’Connell believes the best tuna—bigeye tuna—comes from. Even so, the chef claims, only “one out of 300” tunas this buyer finds for him is good enough to make the 5,000-mile journey to Virginia.

O’Connell buys only one tuna at a time. And he purchases only one grade: 1++. “If I can’t get 1++,” he told me, “I don’t put it on the menu that night. I think most restaurants don’t even know that grade exists.”

Grading is done at the docks, where the tuna is evaluated for color and fat content. This last analysis is accomplished by sticking a sashimo, a long, needlelike probe, into a sample steak cut from the tail. The greasier the probe, the higher the grade. Not content to rely entirely on an official grade, O’Connell has his buyer squeeze the tuna to check its oil content.

Grading has nothing to do with the freshness of a fish, although you might never know it to read a restaurant menu or buy tuna at a high-end supermarket. Diners and buyers alike are wooed with the prospect of “sushi-grade” fish.

O’Connell says he was like a lot of us in believing that that label was a guarantee of quality: “I used to think, 15 years ago or so, that it meant impeccably fresh.”

He’s learned better.

“You can have a fish that’s just been pulled from the water that’s a 3,” says O’Connell. The way he says it, he makes Grade 3 tuna sound like something you’d find at a truck-stop diner.

After O’Connell’s choice, Grade 1++, comes Grade 1+, followed by Grade 1, Grade 2+, Grade 2, and Grade 3. That’s three levels of separation between the inn and most good restaurants. And five levels of separation between the inn and most cheap sushi bars.

 

The process by which the tuna is transferred from the buyer’s hands to O’Connell’s custom-designed kitchen unspools with the precision of a spy operation. O’Connell’s order is in by 8 am Hawaii time. It arrives at the inn by UPS between 10:30 pm and 1:30 am. The fish is delivered to the kitchen in a permeable airbag filled with ice, with a quarter of the fish exposed to the air. This lets O’Connell get a look at the fish in a natural state. A plug, or sample, of the tuna is cut from the tail and laid atop the fish so O’Connell and his staff can sample the flesh and make a quick call as to whether they want to keep it. They eat the plug while the deliveryman waits, his car idling.

O’Connell assesses each piece according to five criteria: firmness, texture, clarity, color, and oil. This last is critical to achieving what food critics and gastronomes call “mouthfeel”—the quality of luxuriousness in the mouth.

O’Connell says he pays anywhere from $16.95 to $25 a pound for his tuna, but he appreciates the fact that most restaurants can’t play that game and suggests that he wouldn’t pay it either if he weren’t working at the level of the famed inn.

“It’s like antiques,” he says. “There’s just not enough of the good stuff . . . to go around. And who wants to pay upward of $20 per pound? And if the public doesn’t know the difference, then is it money well spent?”

I put the question to Wiedmaier. Marcel’s is among the city’s most expensive restaurants. Its tasting menu—at $98 per person—is about half of the price of the inn’s. Wiedmaier is committed to finding the freshest, most exquisite ingredients he can find, but when it comes to tuna, he told me, he draws a line.

Wiedmaier says he is currently serving Grade 1 tuna. Why doesn’t he make the leap up to Grade 1++?

“Because then I’d have to charge about $46 for tuna. The Japanese, they’ll pay that kind of money because they love fish and they understand it. But not here. No way. I’d be hanging from Pennsylvania Avenue if I put that on my menu.”

 

Some chefs, faced with the prospect of pricing themselves out of the market or doctoring the tuna, have bailed out. Johnny Monis is one. The chef and proprietor of Komi, a Greek-accented restaurant a few blocks from Dupont Circle, Monis no longer serves tuna. You might think it would be a natural for his menu, as it’s such a common sight in and around the Mediterranean, the region Monis’s parents are from and from which he draws his inspiration.

Years ago he served a carpaccio of tuna with olive oil and shaved fennel, but it long ago left the repertory. “People don’t want to sit down to a $17 first course,” he says.

Five or six years ago, he says, he was able to get good-quality fish at a price that a small cafe could afford to splurge on. No more: “I can’t find tuna that’s worth the price I was paying for it.”

And Monis isn’t talking about Grade 1++ or even 1+. He’s talking about Grade 1, two levels below what Patrick O’Connell brings in six nights a week at the inn.

For a while, Monis devised a clever solution to the tuna problem. Early on he realized that running an ambitious restaurant on a limited budget would require him to cut back on the size of his portions; to compensate, he ratcheted up the richness of each dish. Out of the same necessity he began serving what he called “white tuna.”

In fact, it wasn’t tuna—it was a loin of Hawaiian waloo. What it had that a lot of red tuna does not is “a good amount of fat.” It also had a “lot more flavor.”

One of the quirks of waloo is that it absorbs whatever it’s cooked with, says Monis, so the chef wrapped it in speck, a cured and cold-smoked bacon from Italy. The speck amplified the richness of the fish and provided a kind of skin for the loin, which kept the flesh moist during roasting. Monis no longer serves the speck-wrapped white tuna, but not for lack of popularity: The dish flew out of the kitchen.

So why call it tuna if it’s not tuna?

“Because people already know what tuna is. They have an expectation. And the waloo approximates that same taste and oiliness.”

Monis hasn’t been alone in looking for tuna replacements, and waloo isn’t the only one. Escolar, a tropical fish, has also been rechristened “white tuna” and has been popping up at restaurants and sushi bars.

Bob Kinkead argues that the practice is nothing new, that white tuna belongs to a long tradition of tinkering with names when it comes to fish. “Nobody wanted to eat Patagonian toothfish,” he says. “You call it Chilean sea bass, and suddenly everybody’s eating it.”

The comparison is especially apt, says Kinkead, when it comes to escolar. “You can cook that thing to death, and it’ll still be juicy, just like the Chilean sea bass.” He says this with the disdain of a kitchen veteran for whom fetching a pan of fish out of the oven at precisely the right moment separates the real cooks from the wannabes. He also refers to escolar as a “bottom feeder.”

So-called white tuna—whether waloo or escolar—has become a draw at many sushi restaurants, largely on the strength of the very quality that Kinkead sneers at. It’s almost never dry, its sheen of surface oil making it a close textural cousin to red tuna at its best. It’s a top seller at Kotobuki in DC’s Palisades, at Joss in Annapolis, and at Matuba in Bethesda.

At Sushi-Ko, the cooks sear the escolar and serve it with onion, ponzu, a garlic chip, and a garlic sauce or stuff it into a roll with jalapeño and mint.

“Americans like it,” says Gravatt. “It doesn’t really taste like fish, and the texture’s good. It’s about what you do with it more than any flavor it has on its own.”

Some chefs are even less kind in talking about it. One night I watched the chef at Sushi Kappo Kawasaki deliver an assortment of sashimi to the table. Several white fishes were included, and I asked whether one of them was white tuna. His grave face softened. He seemed to be laughing. In Japan, he explained, white tuna is considered cat food.

 

I haven’t given up on tuna, even if I have given up my yearlong quest. Let’s just say I’m a wiser, more questioning consumer.

One question in particular kept nagging at me as I brought my research to a close: Many chefs are no longer working with tuna. Was it safe to assume they were no longer eating it?

Most dodged the question, which was an answer in itself. But Monis was candid when asked if he would order tuna in a restaurant. He paused, then said: “I wouldn’t order a tartare, and I wouldn’t order a tuna steak, unless it’s of the highest quality and the person preparing it is really conscientious.”

I told him he was making tuna sound like fugu, the poisonous Japanese blowfish that requires special training on the part of the sushi chef to handle.

He realized the severity of his tone and backed off. Tuna, he said, isn’t dangerous, just costly, and often not worth the investment. “If I were in a restaurant I didn’t know well, I would want to know where it’s from, when the fish was caught, and how long it was out of the water.”

Good luck, I said.

“You asked,” he replied.

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