Thursday, October 22, 1998
It''s no joke that Californians have an appetite for fish. We can''t seem to get enough of the stuff: Sit us down next to somebody from Kansas City for a period of a year and we''ll eat three times as much seafood. They might know about barbecue sauce, but have they ever heard of escolar?
When Kenny Fukumoto runs it on a special at the Flying Fish Grill, like maybe charbroiled with shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, for instance, sauted with soy and marsala, it sells out completely. "Escolar is a warm water, deep sea fish," says Fukumoto, "and the meat is white. It becomes moist and buttery when you cook it." Easy enough to understand why it''s becoming a part of our local fish-house vernacular.
So what about trying some lau-lau on for size? Or giving the tambaqui a try? They only sound like Latin American dance steps you''d only attempt after a couple of mai tais--they''re actually Amazon River fish that are showing up on another local menu. Manoel Errico and Sonia Oliveira have known about these tasty, freshwater Brazilian fish, which are not so unusual to find in their native Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. But it''s only been recently that they''ve become available as an import, and became an exciting addition to their menu at the Brazilian Caf and Restaurant in Pacific Grove.
The Oliveiras are celebrating their fourth anniversary at the restaurant next month, no mean feat for a small family-run restaurant specializing in a type of cuisine fairly unknown to the majority of diners. If you study the menu closely, however, it becomes apparent that many of the items are deliciously familiar but are given a different twist that reflects the wide number of influences that made an impact on the part of South America it represents. Like the Brazilian national dish, feijoada, a knock-out version of cassoulet done with beef and sausage, black beans and rice. It''s flavorful with onions, garlic and peppers, but not ''hot and spicy''--a common misconception applied to Brazilian food.
Not surprisingly, when they can order in the lau-lau and tambaqui >(tam-bah-key) along with other Amazon River fish like dourada, surubim and caparari, Errico and Oliveira find they have a ready clientele of those already in-the-know. For the uninitiated, usually a taste is all it takes to make them aficionados. Because of the characteristic firm, veal or pork-like texture of these fish, they lend themselves to a variety of bold presentations, often served as steaks with the large, pliable rib bones left in, something that might even impress your Kansas City cousin.
Another benefit of the fishes'' sturdy nature is their ability to hold up well to freezing--right now the only way that they''re available for import. Though utilizing frozen fish was a custom formerly shunned by upscale houses, even the trendiest East Coast eateries are scrambling to jump on the bandwagon, vying to be first in line to titillate the most jaded Manhattan palate. The positive response points to the likely advent of industry practices that make a fresh supply possible.
All of this, and it''s all PC, too. The developing Amazonian fishery seems to be taking the pressure off what has been ongoing merciless deforestation, and may spell economic hope for the region. Unveiling a steamy, tender tambaqui steak from its cloak of banana leaves and inhaling the ascending aroma of sweet peppers and coconut milk, Brazilian Caf''s moqueca, is an instant call to activism, a cause fish-loving Californians might find easy to support. cw