School Days: Salmon Season in Seattle

By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
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:

• Oceanaire, offering the plushy feel of a steakhouse, with white-jacketed waiters and a steep price.

• Wild Ginger, known for its Asian slant on local dishes, but I wanted my Copper River king straight up.

• The Herbfarm, which is often booked solid months in advance.

• Anthony's, a group of 18 restaurants around the state. Most people tried to steer me to the upscale Anthony's Pier 66, although they mentioned that locals were more likely to frequent the company's Chinook's, which was described to me as "blue-collar" and "family-style." I had ignored the locals once and it cost me. This time it would be the populist favorite.

Chinook's doesn't take reservations, and although it was prime time Friday night, we took our chances. Though crowded, the place has a bar that seats 50, with a view of the marina. It was no hardship to wait for a table, sipping cocktails and watching the boats gently bob at the docks (not only does the restaurant offer free parking, it also has free customer moorage). We were seated just as we finished our drinks.

While not formal, the place is not what I associate with family-style. With big windows, tiled areas near the open kitchen and a contemporary look, it was more of a khaki-and-sport-shirt crowd than jeans, T-shirts and scampering tykes.

Our waiter brought us warm bread and deftly talked me into a plate of oysters, after which I explained my disappointment in the esteemed salmon and why. "Let me take care of it," he said. At his suggestion, a friend and I ordered Copper River king salmon cooked on an alder plank, and lightly grilled Copper River sockeye salmon. Although many people find the buttery feel of king salmon in the mouth superior, the sockeye has its fans as well. It has a startling reddish color, almost like a good blood orange, and a high oil content, but a tighter grain than the king. It also has more of a fish-flesh texture, but with an excellent flavor nonetheless.

Our waiter did take good care of us. The sockeye was lightly browned and rich in flavor. But the plank-cooked king was the fins-down winner. It was a thick fillet, lightly bronzed, with a thin but visible layer of fat along the belly and a rich red-pink color. As promised, it had a buttery texture that melted to a velvety morsel on the tongue.

We had also accepted our waiter's recommendation of an Oregon pinot noir from Erath Vineyards at a bargain $23. Though it seemed to lack depth at first, it paired exceptionally well with the salmon and grilled rosemary potatoes. We capped the meal with Chinook's signature dessert, wild mountain blackberry cobbler. I can't attest that the berries were hand-picked in the wild, as the restaurant claims, but the fruit was just tart enough to offset the sweetness of the filling and vanilla ice cream topping, and to complement the flaky crust.

At $150 for drinks, appetizers, entrees, wine and dessert and tip for two, the meal was fairly priced -- and a reminder to always listen to the locals. And now that I've been properly schooled on Copper River salmon, I'm hooked.

Chinook's, 1900 W. Nickerson St., Seattle, 206-283-4665, No reservations; free parking.

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