A home cook might have been put off by the plump egg sacks that spilled out of a recent delivery of white perch. But Kyle Bailey was thrilled.
In one of countless seafood experiments that could wind up on the menu of his forthcoming restaurant, the Washington chef salt-dried the orange segment-shaped pouches, bursting with roe, until they hardened into bottarga. The Italian delicacy was grated over fresh pasta to add a briny kick.
“They were so good,” he said, a wide grin parting the beard that has grown thick since he left Birch & Barley a year ago to eventually open the Salt Line, a New England-style seafood restaurant on Washington’s Southeast Waterfront, this summer. “They taste like the ocean, man.” Bailey is now at Sixth Engine in the District.
Though the preparation was Italian, the roe-filled perch were harvested from a Chesapeake Bay river much closer to home. They were part of one of many deliveries Bailey will be receiving as the first Washington restaurant working with Dock to Dish, a program growing nationally that applies the weekly farm box model to something chefs rarely get to source so directly: seafood.
Dock to Dish is building its deliveries on the back of the first community supported fishery (CSF), which launched last year. A spin-off from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Old Line Fish Co. was the first in the region to offer home cooks in and around Annapolis biweekly bags of bay species such as soft-shell clams, blue catfish and blue crabs last summer. Cooks pay upfront for the season, about $45 a bag, which includes three to four pounds of seafood.
Old Line’s founder, Kelly Barnes, will run the Dock to Dish program here, making those same sources available to restaurant chefs who are ready to receive whatever the boats bring in. Washington is the fourth city to welcome the program that’s already working with chefs like Eric Ripert, Mario Batali and April Bloomfield in New York City and Thomas Keller in the San Francisco area.
“I think D.C. desperately needs this,” said Dock to Dish co-founder Sean Barrett, a native of Montauk, N.Y., who used to visit Washington’s seafood markets while attending Catholic University in the 1990s. “I always had in mind that D.C. would be a great place to reconnect chefs to the source.”
While Washington chefs are increasingly sourcing their beef, pork and produce from local farms, seafood deliveries still tend to come through conventional distribution channels. Even with the advent of QR codes and sustainability programs, those products are more likely than others to arrive mislabeled — in part because 90 percent of the country’s seafood is still sourced or processed overseas before it reaches consumers.
The conservation nonprofit Oceana used DNA testing in a 2015 study to find the Chesapeake Bay’s most iconic species, Maryland blue crab, was impersonated in 38 percent of the crab cakes that used the moniker on menus in the region. An earlier study found red snapper mislabeled on Washington menus 100 percent of the time.
Barrett thinks Washington chefs will be eager to try a new source. In New York City, the waiting list of restaurants wanting to work with Dock to Dish has grown to include 250 names since the program landed its first chef customer in 2013, the forward-thinking Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Manhattan.
“None of this would matter if the fish weren’t of impeccable quality,” said Barber, who has introduced Barrett to many of the top-tier chefs now working with the program. “It’s not just that it’s fresh, but we’re working with fishermen that are catching fish at the moment it should be caught. That’s kind of a new idea.”
Dock to Dish’s founder saw Bailey, 36, as a fitting chef to carry the program’s torch into a new market. Early in his career, Bailey was steeped in Barber’s local-sourcing philosophies during a stint at Blue Hill at Stone Barns starting in 2007. He carried the mantra to Washington’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group in 2009, where he worked closely with local farmers to build menus at ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.
At Birch & Barley, Bailey honed his charcuterie skills, using every part of whole animals. Now he is translating those practices to the bounty he’s getting from local waters.
Barnes has been delivering test-run batches to the restaurant Sixth Engine, where Bailey has been experimenting for the past year, trying to challenge him with new species that could be included in Dock-to-Dish deliveries.
“It’s like catch of the day on steroids,” said Jeremy Carman, one of three co-owners of the Long Shot Hospitality group behind the Salt Line, named for the brackish waters where salt water meets fresh water. “I think not knowing what you’re going to get keeps these guys moving.”
There was the cooler full of snakelike Chesapeake Bay eels, the large ones that local fishermen such as Bunky Chance and Moochie Gilmer easily catch but often use for bait. Bailey and his chef de cuisine Mike O’Brien found the meaty, white flesh took well to smoke. They turned some of it into unagi, the Japanese word for eel, with soy-barbecue sauce, and roasted the rest Italian-style with rosemary.
For Barnes, part of the fun is seeing what Bailey does with what she delivers, especially when it’s fish she probably couldn’t hook home cooks on yet.
“I would love to be able to bring more attention to the [eel] fishery, because right now they all get exported or used for bait. But your average Joe Blow is going to be like, ‘What the heck?’ ” she said.
Barnes got a similar reaction when she gave CSF customers a couple dozen soft-shell clams in their shares, their siphons hanging ominously out of the shells. Most of the clams that are harvested in the Chesapeake Bay are sold to New England markets, where they’re often served as steamers and called “Ipswich clams” after the Massachusetts town where Carman was raised.
But, for their New England-inspired, Chesapeake-sourced menu, “I want those clams,” Bailey says. “Dock to Dish has definitely helped with that, cutting several steps out of the chain of custody so we can get fresh product.”
Bailey says the restaurant will still work with other seafood purveyors, especially Washington standbys like Profish and J.J. McDonnell, that are working to deliver more traceable and local seafood supplies to area restaurants. Locally raised oysters will likely come to the Salt Line directly from the growers, many of whom already deliver to chefs.
Dock to Dish will round out those offerings with the best of what’s available each week. A pile of peak-season rockfish might star as an entree, while a mixed bag of blue catfish, eels and clams might show up throughout the menu.
Bailey says he’s eager to show Washington what the region has to offer, “not because ‘it’s the right thing to do’ but because it tastes better,” he said. “We’re constantly chasing that.”
Pipkin writes about food, local agriculture and the environment.