News & Politics

Skate Goes From Trash Fish to Treasure

If monkfish—an unlovely creature whose veiny, purplish flesh turns off many shoppers—could find favor among chefs, you had to figure it was only a matter of time before skate, another “trash fish,” would be rediscovered.

If anything, skate suffers from an even worse image problem. Resembling a giant batwing, it takes on a distressing aroma of ammonia after being out of water for a couple of days.

On the other hand, its flaky white, sweet meat with long, separated strands that run along the line of the bone and make it easy to eat. And while prices continue to go up for other white flaky meats such as flounder and trout, skate is cheap—“one of the few fish,” says Bob Kinkead of DC’s Kinkead’s, “a chef can actually make some money on.”

That makes it a hot commodity among chefs who can seek out the fresh product on the market and try to convince diners that skate is worth gambling on.

“It’s just a matter of getting people to make the leap from ‘Ooh, it’s a stingray’ to ‘Ah, it’s a really flaky, sweet fish,’ ” says Kinkead, whose waitstaff appears to be doing just that. Five years ago, a good night for skate was ten orders. These days, his rendition of pan-fried skate with parsley sauce and gnocchi sells three times that many.

Chef RJ Cooper of Vidalia concedes that skate suffers from image problems but says it’s one of the few ingredients that sets his mind racing. “There’s no limit,” he says, “to what you can do with skate.”

Few fishes thrive in so many different contexts. At Montmartre on Capitol Hill, skate undergoes as many dress-ups as Diana Ross in concert: It’s napped with saffron sauce or capers or balsamic sauce. Sometimes it’s sautéed and paired with bok choy or mashed potatoes.

Vikram Garg of IndeBleu glazed it with tamarind and set it next to a fenugreek-pumpkin hash for Thanksgiving. Oyamel also tapped it for holiday duty, frying it up and topping it with guacamole and salsa for its Day of Kings menu in January.

Most chefs favor simpler preparations, the better to enjoy the fish’s delicacy. Oceanaire leaves it unadorned, grilling it with olive oil and serving it with an arugula salad.

Vidalia’s Cooper is rotating two preparations: sautéeing it in a brown butter sauce with capers and lemon for an entrée and serving a smaller appetizer portion with a composed salad of local vegetables that he tops with a Creole mustard vinagrette. At Restaurant Kolumbia, Jamie Stachowski takes a similar tack, pan-frying and seasoning it with capers and lemon juice. That’s also the preferred method of Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, who plans to put skate on the menu at his forthcoming Eamonn’s, a fish ’n’ chips joint.

Trash fish? As long as it’s fresh, these days it’s a treasure fish.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.