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How Long Island restaurants are making porgy, sea robin and skate sexy again

Chef Shawn Patrick at Schout Bay Tavern in

Chef Shawn Patrick at Schout Bay Tavern in Manhasset. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Tucked behind the Long Beach dunes on an August evening, Five Ocean fills with a sun-kissed crowd who secure rosé and margaritas upon arrival. A few glance into the kitchen, where chefs bend their heads over the task at hand, while others surround a lone oyster shucker who pops open Peconic Gold oysters at one end of the bar. Each is snapped up by hungry hands almost as soon as they hit ice.

Have you ever eaten tilefish? It’s a fair question, right? At Five Ocean this night, it is one star of the show — a tasting of local fish not seen often on menus — and makes a splashy debut on trays in the form of a tilefish, calamari and skate salad, accented with papaya, chili and crumbled peanuts. The little boats of salad elicit happy murmurs through the dining room. "This is pretty good," someone in linen says as samples sail through the crowded room and onto the patio.

It is the opening act for a multiple course tasting of wild-caught local fish — some of it incorrectly labeled as bycatch and most of it absent from Long Island restaurant menus — during a tasting organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension, which supplied the chefs with tilefish, porgy, skate, sea-robin, calamari and dogfish for the event.

"People are so familiar with shrimp and salmon, and those are often farm-raised," said CCE fisheries specialist Kristen Gerbino. The staff at Cornell has tried to raise awareness of underutilized local fish for years, even launching a website, localfish.org, that has pictures, back stories and recipes for skate, squid, porgy, wahoo, weakfish and ling, all abundant in Long Island waters but rarely seen on menus. "People need inspiration," Gerbino added, whether recipes for a reinvented "lobster" roll (made with sea robin), or another for blackened whiting tacos.

The Five Ocean tasting, the first of its kind, was a new front toward winning over the hearts and minds of diners who default to shrimp or salmon, and Cornell had brought together at least six chefs from across the island for the event. They brought their A-game: There was tilefish ceviche with passion fruit and pineapple and "tilefish acting like crab" in a rich tomato-fish broth, from chefs Craig Atwood and Brian Wilson of Five Ocean; crispy deep-fried skate with complex Indian spices and cilantro-mint chutney, from chef Jay Jadeja of The Onion Tree in Sea Cliff; dogfish (aka sand shark) escabeche with pimento aioli from Matt Birnstill, executive chef at The Quogue Club; and fried cornmeal-crusted sea robin with a pickled-ramp aioli, from Shawn Patrick, executive chef of Manhasset’s Schout Bay Tavern.

"I think someone has to come up with a friendlier name for some of these fish. You say ‘sea robin’ and people are like, ‘gross,’" said Patrick. He jokes that if he took salmon off the menu, "there might be a riot."

Before Schout Bay, Patrick worked a few summers in Montauk, where he would buy fish straight from the dock — puffer fish, tuna, swordfish, fluke, flounder, and rockfish. Even though he’s known many a dorsal fin, Patrick did online research on sea-robin dishes, especially those from London restaurants, where sea-robin is called gurnard and is more common on menus.

Cornmeal-crusted sea-robin, as it turns out, is superb — it has a meatier texture than, say, flounder, but was still flaky, and (important for a lot of diners), not even remotely fishy. Yet it has its issues. . "It’s not very easy to clean. It has a gigantic head and a huge spine. You usually have to finesse to get the meat out of it," Patrick said.

"I simply do not have the labor to clean it," added Wilson of Five Ocean, about sea robin. "We need the help of the middleman, a fish wholesaler to clean the fish and get it processed. There’s a big block in the supply chain for these bycatch."

Which leads to a kind of feedback loop: Without restaurant demand, whether due to diner habits or a labor shortage, there is not a strong enough market to compel fishing fleets to target certain fish, even if it is abundant (and delicious). So it was with porgy for many years, said Captain Peter Haskell, a commercial fisherman and an owner of two East End seafood markets. He recalled a time when "the price of porgy was low, so it was hard to make money with a trip limit of 70 pounds when, at the time porgy, was only 50 cents a pound." (New York state fisheries are highly managed, to keep populations strong). "Seafood is tricky. There’s a lot that goes into it. Number one, for a fisherman to target something, they need to make a living."

Haskell is also cognizant that shifting consumer tastes takes time and effort. "Seafood is all about trust. You need to build that trust with the public, and it doesn’t happen overnight," he said. The quick turnaround of locally caught fish from water to plate should be an enticement, he added, but so too is the seasonal, ever-changing catch, from hand-harvested mussels to yellowfin tuna, pumpkin swordfish and black sea bass.

In his markets, Haskell has been pushing porgy as an alternative to cod for fish-and-chips, for example, and porgy has certainly made inroads here: Sometimes found on the menu at Latin American restaurants, whole roasted porgy also appears among Five Ocean’s specials — as does tilefish ceviche. Wilson also makes tilefish ravioli for his pasta business, Crab & Bull Provisions. "As chefs, if we can take a relatively crude item and make it beautiful in its own way, present [the fish] in a fun fashion and feature cool things on the menu, it supports the local bycatch," he said.

Dig into the rising and falling fortunes of these fish, and you stumble across some wild stories: Tilefish had a raging 15 minutes of fame on American plates in the late 1800s, until a mysterious die-off; now it’s in demand again from Chinese and Korean buyers (there is plenty of it at Hmart in Jericho, for instance), so some East-End boats still target tilefish exclusively. Skate (aka stingray) is a longtime French culinary darling that will show its face, or wing, on bistro menus. Steelhead trout, now sustainably farmed upstate, is increasingly appearing in dishes such as the creamy steelhead trout Carbonara at Manna at Lobster Inn in Hampton Bays, which opened earlier this year. There, chefs Jesse Matusoka and Thomas Bogia also harness our surfeit of bluefish for a smoked-bluefish dip. "One of the focuses [of Manna] is to use underutilized fish, and work with local fisherman and the products they don’t sell as much of to express a beautiful array of seafood," said Matsuoka.

The tide is coming in, to quote an overutilized cliché. And it’s not a moment too soon for those who have worked to broaden diners’ eating habits. "Wild-caught fish is not taking up extra space, from an environmental standpoint. It’s very environmentally friendly," said Gerbino. "It’s also very healthy, and you’re eating really close to home, knowing where your fish came from."

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