School Days: Salmon Season in Seattle
Sunday, May 9, 2004
At first I wondered if the praise heaped on Copper River salmon amounted to a fish story. In Seattle, during the one month a year it's available, Copper River salmon is accorded the kind of welcome usually reserved for heads of state, captains of industry and Britney Spears.
Signs on restaurants proclaim "It's Here!" Banners fly at grocery stores. There's an unofficial "first fish" competition in which restaurants charter planes to get them Copper River salmon ahead of competitors, which draws radio, TV and newspaper coverage.
And yet at a swanky Seattle restaurant last June, I raised an orangey morsel of Copper River king to my lips, rolled it on my tongue and thought, "That's it?" There had to be some mistake.
There was. Copper River salmon's reputation for melt-in-your-mouth texture and nutty taste is honestly earned -- I would eventually discover -- but only if prepared to exacting standards.
I'd thought that in Seattle, where the fish annually sets off a mid-May to mid-June feeding frenzy, I'd find sumptuous salmon at every turn. Or at the very least, at a seafood restaurant of high repute.
But the natives had warned me. "Where can I get the best-prepared piece of Copper River salmon in Seattle?" I'd asked a fishmonger at the famous Pike Place Market. "My back yard," he said. In fact, that's what most of the fish vendors told me: their back yard or your own. Because I imagined the historic Mayflower Park Hotel to frown on in-room grilling, I was stuck with local restaurants.
I had actually taken a risk on some Copper River king before arriving in Seattle. My first try was at a restaurant overlooking Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, off the Washington coast. It was good, but no better than any well-prepared cut of wild salmon. Although the rest of the meal was excellent, I figured it takes a big-city chef to properly prepare this salmon.
When I arrived in Seattle, I decided to stack the deck in my favor. I took as a dinner guest Jon Rowley, a former commercial fisherman turned restaurant and food consultant with a special expertise in fish.
When I had originally asked him to recommend three restaurants, he was unable to hold himself to less than eight. After much fretful deliberation, he chose Ray's Boathouse -- partially because he was friends with a chef there.
It helps to have a friend in the kitchen, he explained, because most restaurants cut the salmon into a too-thin steak. That's a problem because of the delicate nature of Copper River salmon. This particular strain of salmon, and the cold water it swims in, gives it an abundance of tasty oils and fat. (Don't panic, it's the healthy omega-3 fatty acids doctors encourage us to eat.) If the fish is cooked at too high a temperature, the oils melt away, leaving a rather commonplace piece of fish. The solution is to halve the fish at the back and belly and cook a thick half-side fillet, said Rowley. That fillet should be barely bronzed on the fleshy side, then lightly cooked in a warm oven. But despite a call ahead to his chef friend, we got the thin steak cut. It was overcooked. When our waitress asked how our fish was, Rowley barked, "Dry."
Ray's generously removed one of the $32 salmon steaks from our bill.
With one chance left to get it right before leaving Seattle, I considered both Rowley's recommendations and those I had solicited at fish markets. Among the possibilities: