It's early in the week and the lunch rush should have been over an hour ago, but the tables at the Pelican Grill are still packed with eager eaters feasting on carefully prepared seafood dishes.
Across the room, at the fish market, lobsters meander in their tank and gleaming fresh fillets, mussels, clams and glassy-eyed whole fish are nestled expectantly on a bed of crushed ice, waiting to be taken home.
Two dozen blocks away, open the door to the Whalesbone Oyster House and you're greeted by an intoxicating sweet, smoky, salty aroma that lets you know you're in for some decadent dining. With a menu that emphasizes the freshest in predominantly Canadian seafood, owner Joshua Bishop has made his mark as someone who loves sharing the fun and flavours of oysters along with other bounty from the sea.
Seafood's popularity is steadily increasing across the city, and it seems to be more than just the health benefits that are driving up consumer interest. "The quality of fish we can offer today is really exciting, says Jim Foster of the Pelican Fishery and Grill. "We move about 80 pounds of top quality sashimi-grade tuna per week, and boutique products like B.C. honey mussels are selling very well also. These exceptional products go at a premium, but customers know they are worth it for the flavour they deliver."
But what about people who claim they don't like fish? "I always ask them what they've tried in the past. Chances are they were served fish that had been frozen and was overcooked. I defy anyone not to enjoy properly cooked fresh fish," enthuses Jim. He cites tilapia and B.C. snapper as two great "entry level" fish for kids, or those who are just learning to become fish lovers. "They both have firm flesh and deliver a mild, delicious flavour," says Jim, adding his personal favourites include Atlantic salmon, grilled Portuguese sardines, shrimp and scallops.
Another Ottawa resource for seafood expertise is Lapointe Fish, which has been providing the finest catches to restaurants and home cooks across the capital for more than 140 years. This impressive milestone has seen their business thrive and diversify, expanding to three retail locations and five seafood grill restaurants, all scrambling to meet the city's seemingly insatiable demand for seafood.
Lapointe's Jeff Vivian says the mainstays in Ottawa are scallops, salmon and halibut, with shrimp gaining in popularity as the price continues to drop. "Another trend we see is people interested in food requiring the least amount of prep time, so boneless fillets are now hugely popular," he adds. "I think that's a great place to start; they represent good value and are much easier to cook and eat, especially for novices."
So why is seafood gaining ground in our diets? Besides travel helping to broaden people's palates, Jim feels that Ottawa's diverse population is also responsible for our collective fondness for fish. "Many of our customers are from Portugal, Italy, Lebanon and other areas of the Middle East. For them, fish is comfort food, and these cultures are passionate about it. Today, for example, we got in some wonderful red mullets. A woman came in and didn't even know the English word for them, but she was overwhelmed with excitement to see them in our fish counter and took 15 of them home."
Sushi is still on the ascendancy, despite some food critics declaring it passé. "Today, sushi parties are the fondue parties of the seventies. Every weekend we have people in here stocking up for a roll your own' event - it's a lot of fun," says Jim with a laugh.
Oysters might be intimidating, but only to the uninitiated. "Most of our oohs and aahs come from serving oysters," acknowledges Joshua, "and we like nothing better than teaching people about enjoying oysters. It's part education and part persuasion as we convince an oyster virgin to try their first, and the overwhelming majority end up loving the taste."
He says that more people seem to like the pure, fresh taste of raw oysters over cooked ones. "There is something truly sensual about sliding an oyster and its brine off its shell and into one's mouth, savouring the complex flavours which vary depending upon the variety, region and time of year," Joshua explains.
He doesn't, however, mention one important additional tidbit that may be fuelling both Ottawa's passion for oysters and the meaty mollusk's reputation as an aphrodisiac: research now shows that in addition to being low in calories and rich in iron, calcium and vitamin A, this shellfish is also a great source of zinc, one of the minerals required for the production of testosterone.
The Whalesbone has supplied many of Ottawa's finest restaurants for several years, as well as offering live or fresh-shucked oysters to take home. Joshua is eagerly anticipating the upcoming opening of his commercial fish market later this year to bring greater offerings to his customers.
Joshua's passion for oysters carries over to his own palate. "I love them, but I do have preferences according to season, and that has nothing to do with the old fallacy about only eating oysters in months with an R in their name. Modern refrigeration has taken care of that problem," laughs Joshua, but he becomes pensive when asked about sustainability. "It's tough. I like the idea of wild fish, but aquaculture is needed to meet demand. I try to get to know all my suppliers so I can work towards running my business as ethically as possible."
Executive chef Steve Wall of the Whalesbone Oyster House says this delicious, rich soup is ideal for a cold winter's night. The lobster claws, legs and tails can be saved for another purpose, with the broth making great use of a part that is often simply discarded. This recipe serves 10, generously. Lobster Stock Step 1: 8-10 uncooked lobster bodies, cleaned of roe and tamalley 3 tbsp canola oil 2 cups onions, medium diced 1-1/2 cups carrots, medium diced 1-1/2 cups leeks, medium diced 6 cloves garlic, chopped 1 knob ginger, peeled and chopped 10 cups water 1 bay leaf 1/4 stick of cinnamon 2 tbsp tomato paste 1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds reserved > Heat a stock pot to medium heat, add canola oil and lobster bodies, then cover pot. Slowly sweat the lobster bodies for 5 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds while also crushing them with a spoon. Lobster bodies should be red and have a cooked appearance when ready. > Add onions, carrots, leeks, garlic, ginger and cook for another 2 minutes. > Add water, bay leaf, cinnamon, tomato paste and vanilla bean plus seeds. > Simmer gently for 1 hour, periodically skimming any fat or foam that rises to the surface. > Strain away ingredients. Remaining liquid is your stock. Step 2: 1/4 cup butter 1-1/2 cups onions, chopped 1-1/2 cups carrots, chopped 1-1/2 cups potato, peeled and chopped 2 tbsp tomato paste salt and Tabasco to season > In same large stock pot, heat butter until foamy, then add onions, carrots and potatoes. Sauté until onions turn translucent. > Add strained lobster stock along with tomato paste. Simmer until vegetables are tender and stock has reduced. > Puree with a blender, then pass through a fine mesh sieve and season to taste. > Ladle hot soup into warmed bowls and garnish each with two smoked oysters (below). Smoked oysters 2 cups soy sauce 1 cup honey 20 large West Coast oysters, such as sea angels, shucked > Gently heat soy sauce and honey just till warm, cool to room temperature, then add oysters and brine in refrigerator overnight. > Smoke for 30 minutes over indirect heat using a coal barbeque with wood chips on one end and oysters on the other. > Refrigerate if not using immediately; bring to room temperature before adding to soup.Tips on Buying Seafood
Fresh fish should never smell fishy. Trust your nose. Fish markets usually have a much faster turnover and better product than grocery stores. If purchasing a whole fish, check the gills as they should be bright red, not purplish. Fresh fish should be firm to the touch with no yellow or dry-looking areas. For oysters, tap one against another to make sure shell is firmly closed. For clams and mussels, tap the shell with your hand to be sure it reacts and closes up slightly. Store fish in a bag, resting on a bag of ice (you do not want the ice touching the fist directly). Store fresh oysters, mussels, clams in a wet towel or wet newspaper. Don't wrap tightly in plastic as they are still alive and need to breathe. Fresh fish should be cooked within 48 hours of purchase; oysters have a slightly longer storage life, particularly the choice east coast species which is also the easiest to shuck. When buying oysters to take home, ask to see the tag which indicates when they were harvested, to be sure of their freshness.Fish and Seafood Cooking Tips from Pelican Fishery
Those new to cooking fish often try to make things too complicated. "I tell them to take something like fresh Atlantic salmon and grill it plain to let the flavour shine through," says Jim Foster. "Don't smother it in a fancy sauce - less truly is more when it comes to fish. Find a source you can trust and remember that fish doesn't have to be expensive to be delicious. You can use a small quantity of very good fish and deliver a very impressive dish. Paella is a great example of this." A general rule for baking or broiling fish is 10 minutes per inch of thickness at 400 to 450°F, turning the fish halfway through the cooking time. If less than ½ inch thick, the fish does not have to be turned. Fish with low fat content, like grouper, flounder and tilapia, should be basted when broiling or baking. Fish is done when the flesh becomes opaque and flakes easily at the thickest part. Most fish will continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes after being removed from the heat, so plan for this in the cooking time. If barbequing, prepare a moderately hot fire and oil grill thoroughly. Firm-textured fish grill particularly well. Shellfish such as scallops, clams, oysters and shrimp become opaque and firm when fully cooked - do not overcook as this will result in loss of moisture which affects texture and taste. Oysters, mussels and clams should be steamed in a small amount of water until their shells open completely. Any clams or mussels whose shells do not open while cooking should be discarded. Shrimp or scallops can be simmered for 3-5 minutes in a large pot of boiling water or broiled for about the same amount of time. Written by Paula Roy