First Ever Tag-A-Giant Dinner at Passionfish Makes a Tasty Splash
December 9, 2011
You know it's a seafood party when the sardines start falling from the ceiling.
As it turned out, watching a staffer feed the bluefin tuna from the rafters above their tank at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC) at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove was a wonderfully appropriate way to launch the first ever Tag-A-Giant benefit dinner put on by Ted and Cindy Walter at Passionfish.
Like the feeding—which sent the muscular "lions of the sea" jostling for grub—the tour of the TRCC was fascinating and hard to forget; at the dinner, meanwhile, fresh seafood platters seemed to be dropped from the heavens. (Click here for insight into how one of the area's most treasured restaurant families got so passionate about conserving our oceans with a recent column I wrote called "Passion Project.")
Stanford professor, marine biology pioneer and preeminent tuna master on the planet Barbara Block led a tour of the unparalleled facility, which included a look at the bluefin's dinner—squid, some sort of seaweed-vitamin pellet and their fatty favorite, sardines.
The bluefin are almost as stunning on paper as they are during feeding: Their cross-Atlantic commutes can reach 18,000 nautical miles in a year and a half. They can grow to 1,500 pounds. They can reach 50mph.
But all that might translates to delicious flesh—and rampant overfishing.
“They’re some of the most lucrative fish in the ocean,” Block says. “But while they’re being sought all over the world, they’re one of the least understood fish out there.”
To that end she toured us through the vital history the tuna represent and her team's push to learn more about them, an effort centered at the TRCC, the only facility of its kind on the continent.
Some of the things she included:
• A peek at the tagging technology that took a decade to develop and now provides a rich buffet of information about tuna travels and tendencies (they also track sharks, albatross and other tuna species).
• The fact that bluefin tuna served as a foundation of civilization. Look no further than early coins—with the bluefin shape clearly outlined on them—for evidence that societies depended on their prodigious protein. The sad irony: Humans are bringing on the end for a fish that helped provide civilization's beginning.
• Strange love: As Block demonstrated with help from her pal Cindy Walter, female bluefin in heat lead male tuna with a scent keeps the male following in close following proximity, then they swim in tight circles to create a vortex of water that holds the eggs for the male to "broadcast" fertilize them with clouds of sperm.
• A strategic regret: Tags, some with sly sensors that can triangulate time and amount of sunlight to determine location, have only gotten more expensive, hence Block's thought: "We should've taken a patent for what we developed."
• Hope: Unlike the Atlantic bluefin, there is a chance that the Pacific bluefin can make it, partly because of the high "fidelity" of their migrations. Since they often return to place like the Monterey Bay, the preservation of marine reserves around here means real optimism for the species, as long as other progress is made in our eating and polluting habits.
I was surprised to hear that hope for the bluefin is still swimming, but the most striking commentary from Block came to the group at the TRCC and then as we sat for dinner (more on the food in a minute):
Just like the tuna themselves, who disappear from view beneath the surface of the sea even when they school into the scores, the real menace of eating them to extinction isn't the self-centered variety—no more toro belly for me :(.... —but the big picture problem: We can't see what havoc will result from playing with such a fundamental piece of the food web. As Cindy reminded the group, 70 percent of the air we breathe comes from the ocean's planktons. If we eliminate apex predators that can have all sorts of nasty consequences down the chain, many of which we can't anticipate.
The thoroughly fresh and fun tastes started immediately come dinner, with a spoonful of seared scallop diced with tamarind and tangerine in what's called a tataki. Scallops are versatile little devils, but I wouldn't have thought to parlay them with tamarind tastes, but it worked wonderfully.
This oyster shooter treat—accented by bright pomegranate-and-ginger granita—was attractive enough to entice one 50-something diner to try oysters for the first time. Quite a virgin voyage for him. The spoonful was a spark of exciting flavor.
The third opening taste marked one of the table's favorites all night, and just might deserve a spot on Ted Walter's regular lineup. A squash custard and lemon verbena vinaigrette gave the fresh crab a creamy-but-lively lift without clouding its naturally sweet freshness.
If the evening's first sardine treatment was unique (air-dropped from above, raw), the second also qualifies: lightly crusted and fried and served with Caesar panna cotta. A tasty treatment for a fish that turns a lot of people off, but one we'd do well to cozy up with more to make lower-foodchain eating easier.
In a night flooded with flavor, the rockshrimp pepper stew stands out—as fresh as anything served, but feisty with dynamic spice and nice with just the right amount of fried batter on the little shrimp. Killer with the Ryme Cellars 2010 Carneros Vementino made by the Walters' own son-in-law Ryan Glaab.
As is her wont, Passionfish wine diva/GM Jennae Lizza orchestrated a fun and original wine lineup, dropping around a dozen wines in waves of three designed to encourage diners to experiment with pairings. "Keeping with the science theme," she said, "this is your own lab." This flight of "orange wines," so named for a darker tinge white wines draw from contact with grape-skin pigments, paired nicely with the pepper stew, clams and halibut sequence...
…and included an eye-catching Natural Process Alliance Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River. A great idea—bottled in reusable canteens and served only within a tight Northern California radius to ensure freshness and low shipping impacts—but the skunky wine itself needs a little help.
Maybe the best local seafood chef test we have: halibut. Splashed with a leek vinaigrette and bedded next to a parsley-tarragon salad, this baby was silky, moist and melty in the mouth. A+.
Clams came with the halibut, and had me thinking deconstructed clam chowder, only better. The wonderful partners: thick, salty, small-batch bacon, beautiful flageolet beans and a from-scratch aioli that evoked a creamy chowder kiss. A forkful with all those had me doing exclamation marks on my menu.
So did the green-peppercorn-pickled-celery-root that arrived with the truffled cabbage and tender catfish. Like all the featured seafood, the catfish is as carefully sourced as it is prepped.
Chef also took a sustainable favorite in Arctic char and gave it a whole new feel by lavishing it in a rich smoky sauce with potato skins to approximate an "oxtail au vin." Dishes like this help illuminate why one of the area's most creative tastemakers was jamming all week in preparation, and didn't emerge from the kitchen until dessert.
Speaking of dessert, the lemon pudding cake was as moist as it was adorable, with a touch of pineapple and, fittingly enough, passionfruit syrup.
Medjool dates, walnuts and pieces of pear played varying accompanying notes around the anchor of this dessert, a goat cheese mousse.
Finally, homemade hot chocolate with a just-right-roasted rose marshmallow. A fun flavorful punctuation.
As the historic dinner ended, the conversations only got louder and livelier—which will have to also apply to the ocean-minded movement led by folks like Ted and Cindy Walter (from left, with a friend donor Susan Baxter) if we want it to succeed in saving our seas and, ultimately, ourselves.