Fish are undergoing a modest bump in the city. The latest fish place to open is Red Fish, College and Dovercourt. The former brunch fave Mitzi’s has been transformed into a spacious dining room with cream and red walls, dark wood furniture, soft pendant lighting, nautical touches – no music!A reassuring throwback to white table-cloth dining.
The co-owner and chef is David Friedman, from Vancouver via Fish Bar, the popular snackery on Ossington. He takes sustainability seriously. The Ocean Wise logo is stamped on the menu. The Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium advocacy program intended to wise up consumers about what fish is and is not sustainable. A well-intended effort. But defining sustainable fish is not so easy: it’s not just a question of observable declining stocks, like the great cod meltdown, but whether the way a fish is caught endangers sea life generally. Moreover, similar conservation groups don’t always see eye to eye on what is sustainable enough to eat, or what sustainability actually means – because like most enviro- advocacy groups, the inspiration is political, an effort to change the way we live, as much as scientific.
A quick scan of Ocean Wise’s advisory list is dismaying. Consumers have already started to change the way they live – urged by doctors to eat more and more fish, so full of life-saving Omega 3 fatty acid. Now Ocean Wise is telling us that many of the tastiest fish are off-limits mostly for enviro reasons, and not simply because they are in danger of being overfished. Tonight I know I won’t see on the menu several of my favourites – monkfish, grouper, snapper, Mediterranean sardines , a vast shoal of little species which apparently defy accurate accounting, and the fresh-water eel, unagi, a staple of sushi. Skate won’t be there, overfished with many enviro strikes against it. And lobster! What is going on here? Are we consumers such dummies that we haven’t noticed the surge of American lobsters in the past few years, so much so that prices have sharply dropped and fishermen are complaining.
I reckon Red Fish’s menu is a gallant effort against the odds. We have some excellent fresh and fried Smelts dusted with Maldon Salt, for dipping into a peppery/saffron mayo (Rouille). And we follow that with a tart and tender Trout (locally farmed) ceviche, $15,cooked in kaffir lime juice, mixed with tomato salsa and coconut shavings.
We ponder the hot and sour Tom Yum Goong soup $9 because we reckon this may be the last chance to taste Whiteleg shrimp - Ocean Wise okays a single Whiteleg, farmed in the US, but not for long: “Concerns are beginning to be raised over the energy footprint associated with closed containment farming.” I thought most enviro objections were to farms set up in the sea. How can you win? We settle for the sturdy beet in several colours, a decorative salad $9 which includes fresh figs, mache, tossed in a lightly sour goat cheese dressing.
Five of the eight second courses are fish - local Pickerel, Arctic Char, Shrimp & Grits – must be the Laughing Ocean Shrimp farmed in Belize, the only one recommended by Ocean Wise. We choose seared Albacore Tuna, $26, speared by harpoon, says the server, on the East Coast. But say, Ocean Wise nixes it! Oh well. Tuna really needs a boost – such a fragile flavour, such gelatinous texture, needs lots more of the spicy Peach jerk which is baked into the crust. Nothing wrong however with the whole Sea Bream, $32, farmed in Nova Scotia. It is pan fried, stuffed with potatoes and lemon, the flesh just knitted enough.Flavour? Faint. Looks like Scup, the East Coast junk fish, Porgie, a juicy chubster which Ocean Wise nixes, but has flavour in spades.
What a shame Chef Friedman, a dab hand with fins, can’t do a bolt and cook a Monkfish. Eating fish for any reason but taste seems crazy to me.
We end with the meringue, Pavlova, $8, slathered in lemon curd and blueberry compote, a little too sweet.
Red Fish hasn’t been open long: still our server should have been savvier. And the Toronto service curse – “Is everything OK? “is non-stop. We hardly have a few bites before we’re interrupted by the server or manager. My advice: leave well alone until an irate customer calls you over.
Red Fish, 890 College St., 416-733-3474, redfishresto.com. Dinner for two plus tax:$115.Out of 4 Stars: Food **Service * Vibe ** and a half.