Take a look across the foodservice landscape—there’s innovation happening in seafood that we haven’t seen before. It’s finding a new sweet spot between its traditional moorings of either high-end elegance or seaside-themed shack. Seafood is becoming more hip, elbowing its way over to the cool kids’ table, where brunch, global mash-ups and modern flavors sit. Todd Mitgang, executive chef of New York’s Crave Fishbar, describes it as a move into a new positioning.
“What we didn’t see were restaurants that wanted to be seafood-centric, but also be a neighborhood, casual space,” he says. “We wanted to offer elevated service, but we wanted to attract people who didn’t want fussy food. We thought that was a big opportunity.” His first restaurant opened four years ago, and he opened another location about seven months ago. He’s clearly onto something.
As evidence, look to Atlanta’s Lure. Brunch-goers can order a fried catfish biscuit with roasted tomato and Crystal mayonnaise. Salt & Barrel in Bay Shore, N.Y., calls itself an “oyster and craft cocktail bar,” and serves up dishes like Casino Clam Toast with chopped clams and brown butter. In Chicago, a casual seafood joint called Fish Bar is serving dishes like Salmon Tartare with chimichurri sour cream and prawn chips. And at Slapfish, with six locations in Southern California, guests can dig into the loaded fries trend with the Chowder Fries, natural-cut french fries smothered in creamy clam chowder and bacon.
What brought us here? How did we go from a tradition of baked, grilled or sautéed fillet of fish with parsley and lemon to a bounty of flavor-forward, laid-back seafood dishes? “The health-and-wellness trend has certainly given seafood a bump,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, an independent foodservice consultancy based in Arlington, Vt. “That created the base, for sure, and then the growth of global flavors has pushed it further into menu-development focus.”
Robert Pesch, VP of culinary R&D at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, agrees. In fact, he says that seafood has been the largest growth category at the Irving, Texas-based chain over the last few years. “Chicken tenders is our No. 1 selling item, but the fact that our salmon is the largest growing item is telling,” says Pesch. “From a growth perspective, it’s all about seafood. I think it’s in part due to the health-conscious trend, where guests are understanding they can have a satisfying meal with seafood. It’s also about really cool flavor builds.”
Webster points out that sushi helped us rethink seafood in this country. “We embraced sushi and all of its freshness cues, realizing that seafood doesn’t have to be battered and fried to be delicious,” she says. Sushi opened the door to more raw-fish exploration, from ceviches and crudos to tataki and tartare. But it’s poke that’s helping cement seafood as a cool, casual, affordable, flavor-forward choice. Poke—that Hawaiian dish of tuna, salmon or maybe octopus, marinated in shoyu and sesame oil with various mix-ins—is serving as ambassador of modern seafood trends. Proliferating through food trucks and fast-casual joints, the success of poke is signaling to foodservice that there’s something significant happening in the seafood space.
Seafood, My Way
Of course, fast casuals have a natural in with customization, modeling themselves easily with a choose-your-own-adventure menu. Pokeatery in San Mateo, Calif., offers a base of kelp noodles, mixed greens or rice, then mix-ins like cucumber and green onion. Protein options range from ahi tuna to salmon to shrimp, and sauces include Wasabi Citrus and Original. Toppings are varied, including avocado, edamame, kimchi and jalapeño. The trend here is optionality with both familiar and exotic ingredients that lets guests personalize their seafood experiences.
Pesch credits the success of grilled salmon on the Cheddar’s menu to customization. Guests can choose blackened, grilled or bourbon-glazed, and a portion size of either 5 oz. or 9 oz. “All three are growing in sales,” he says. “One of the main reasons it’s been a great item for us is because we give them a choice.”
Customization also helps make seafood friendlier. As an example, Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef at Gordon Food Service, points to a new restaurant in Manhattan called Seamore’s that is attracting Millennials with its seafood menu. It offers something called Reel Deals, where guests can choose from “daily landings,” five sauce options (including miso brown butter and charred scallion) and three daily sides, all for $23. “Seamore’s is wrapping up a lot of global flavors around the seafood, too, which makes those dishes more enticing,” he says.
Big, bold flavor does seem to drive seafood innovation today, and when customization is built in, comfort levels match that sense of discovery beautifully. At Fish Camp in Huntington Beach, Calif., customization options include a list of 14 seafood species, from Alaskan halibut to Mexican shrimp. Guests can choose a sandwich, salad, plate or taco, as well as prep methods: grilled, crusted, blackened, a la plancha, or BBQ-spice rubbed. At Brown Bag Seafood Co. in Chicago, protein options include teriyaki-scallion salmon and crispy fish bites. In addition to the sandwich, salad, taco or “straight up” options, the fast casual also offers a “powerbox” as a platform, which consists of quinoa and wild rice with fresh spinach, herbs and lemon.
Modern Flavor Stories
We’ve seen the reinvention of fish and chips, where every component has been given a flavor upgrade, from the batter to the tartar. And that trend continues, thanks to the gastropub effect, and to consumers who are responding to all sorts of premium treatments, whether it’s fish and chips, burgers, po’ boys or fried chicken sandwiches. But on the flip side of that thoroughly explored platform—battered, fried fish with spreads and dipping sauces—is a new order of seafood craveability.
At 32-seat Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, Calif., David LeFevre, chef/co-owner, wants to showcase his pristine seafood with bright, subtle, clean flavors. “You can do it with lime juice, pomegranate or a number of seasonal fruits—you want to make the seafood soar rather than weigh it down,” he says. On his “New School” menu, his hamachi is partnered with ponzu, avocado, red radish, Serrano and shiso. “I look at it like I would look at building a vinaigrette,” says LeFevre. “Where’s the richness coming from? Here, it’s the fish, the avocado, so I need something to cut through it. The ponzu sauce lends brightness and acidity. If I were to pair it with a leaner fish, it wouldn’t work as well.” He does have an “Old School” section of the menu, with items like his 24th St. Pale Ale-Battered Cod with dill pickle rémoulade, but he says customers also gravitate to the “new” side of the menu. “People like nostalgic, older style seafood, but they also like the modern ones, and that’s where you get an edge,” he says. “They want refreshing flavors, and they want to taste how good the seafood is.”
New York’s Crave Fishbar also serves up modern flavors. Snapper Sashimi sports jalapeño-lemon purée, radish and dill while calamari is a global mash-up of squid (dusted in a combination of corn starch and rice flour), fresh mung bean sprouts, whole-leaf Thai basil, cilantro, mint and a Thai miso sauce. “It all gets tossed together so you get a nice contrast of textures, and then we finish it with Aleppo chiles,” says Fishbar’s Mitgang.
At Chicago’s Fish Bar, Michael Kornick, chef/co-owner, seamlessly combines modern with casual. “He’s carefully blending seafood-centric snacks and a choice of smaller portions to hit that lower price point while offering really terrific, flavorful seafood,” says Gerry Ludwig. One example is his baby octopus with Tabasco powder, red pepper coulis and chayote squash, which comes in both a 3-oz. and 6-oz. serving.
At Cheddar’s, the Citrus Miso-Glazed Salmon is the No. 1 seller on the Lighter Side menu, served over ginger rice with a grilled lemon. “We’ve also just put blackened redfish back on the menu,” says Pesch. “Both the Lighter Side salmon and the redfish have a lot of big, delicious flavors, and our guests are responding to that.”
A Note about Sustainability
Sustainability, especially when it comes to seafood, has long been challenging for consumers to wrap their heads around. Today, it seems that the collective efforts in conveying that message have succeeded. “The sustainability side of seafood is definitely influencing our guests,” says Pesch. “People used to be scared of it, but now they’re more educated, have a better handle on it, and are more comfortable ordering seafood in restaurants.”
Certainly, the messaging around sustainability has become less academic and more approachable. Crave Fishbar’s tagline is “sustainable because we give a shuck.” “Our No. 1 bullet point isn’t local,” says Mitgang. “It’s sustainability. We care about our harbors, fishermen and the ocean.” Slapfish simply says that “sustainability tastes better.” And Brown Bag says it’s “lean and clean.” Hitching a menu’s seafood narrative onto sustainability makes good business sense because it’s a value held more closely by diners today than ever before. That piece, much like the broader messaging of authenticity, has to be genuine in its delivery, or, as Maeve Webster puts it, “if you don’t have the credibility, you’re dead in the water.”
In fact, any restaurant brand pondering how it can tap into this burgeoning trend of flavor-forward seafood needs to tread carefully. “They should build a strong reputation around freshness and the ability to celebrate different flavors and forms,” says Webster. “There’s a lot of opportunity for operators to get creative with the visual appeal, flavor build and breadth of seafood offerings.”