For several years when eating out in a non-coastal city, St. Pauli Girl would order salmon, and then I would gently swat her on the forehead with my menu and admonish her, “No!” That’s because whether it’s a $4.99 special at a diner or a $37 entrée at Haute de Rigeur FancyPants Restaurant, ninety-five percent of the time, the salmon will taste and smell like the putrid seawater it once swam in.
This system has worked fairly well for us until the other night when I let my guard down.
“But this is one of the top ten restaurants in the city, surely they know what they’re doing,” St. Pauli Girl said.
“I don’t know. We’re a good five-hundred miles from the nearest port. That’s at least a day’s drive for that fish.”
The waiter then talked her into it. Sure enough, the salmon had to be sent back and St. Pauli Girl wondered if she should get the other fish entrée.
“No,” I said. “Don’t push your luck. Stick with the pasta.”
The waiter then talked her into the sea bass. A few minutes later, I could actually smell the sea bass as it passed by me on its way to the table. This fish was also inedible.
The manager came out, apologized, didn’t charge us for the entrée and offered us a free dessert. This was all well and good until he suggested that maybe we just weren’t used to such a flavorful fish and perhaps this entrée was a little too artistic for our palates.
I then imagined how the staff is trained on its fish dishes:
Chef: Have you ever been to the beach or a lake and stumbled across a washed up fish that’s been rotting in the sun for three days? Do you remember that pungent smell? There are no words to describe it, just that it’s fishy. And that is the essence of fish. When you think about it, it’s actually been baking in the sun for three days. And that’s the kind of taste and aroma we strive for here, just like that fresh sun-baked fish on the beach.
Server: But what if it’s winter so the fish hasn’t really baked that much?
Chef: Then it’s sushi. Let’s be honest, the ideal cut of fish is fish sticks. When you think back to the golden age of fish sticks, somewhere in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70s, they all looked, smelled and tasted the same. You smothered them in ketchup or tartar sauce until that was all you could taste. What I’m trying to achieve here is fish sticks without the sauce. We need to educate our customers because some of these high falutin’ so-called “foodies” think fish should be odorless or maybe taste more like a fine steak. If cows could swim, I’d be happy to serve that. But we serve fish here and there’s a reason the term “fishy” exists.
Manager: So how can we educate our customers?
Chef: First, always point out that the fish is flown in fresh daily. Doesn’t matter if it was on a boat for two weeks, then in a warehouse for a day, then dropped on the ground and run over by a forklift. It flies here first class.
Server: So it doesn’t matter that it takes us three or four days to exhaust our fish inventory?
Chef: Exactly! It’s flown in daily. Now if someone is complaining, suggest that maybe my sauce is too clever for their palate. Then dump a bottle of ketchup on the plate while smirking in disdain. Alright, we all know how my entrées taste. I brought in a few selections from that new sushi place down the street for comparison. Let’s examine the yellowfin tuna sashimi. Breathe in the aroma.
Manager: I don’t get anything. There’s no aroma.
Chef: Right! Serve that to a blind man and he’ll think he’s eating groundhog or prairie chicken or something else unfamiliar. But he will definitely recognize my fish. Now let’s taste it.
Server: Mmmm, very rich.
Chef: But there’s no fish flavor right?
Server: Reminds me of filet mignon.
Chef: Exactly! That’s not fish! That’s a swimming cow! Those sushi chefs must be rank amateurs. They should at least douse some saltwater on the fish or throw some stale seaweed on it.
Server: Um, yeah. So you don’t mind if I finish the leftovers?
Chef: Sure, but you’ll probably need this. (passes the server a bottle of ketchup)