We fell in love with aguachile at Mexico City’s Contramar (above). Layers of thinly sliced fresh fish, red onion, cucumber, chile, cilantro, and lime juice: What’s not to love? Yes, it’s similar to ceviche, but it isn’t marinated as long and typically packs a more serious chile-hot punch.
So it was love (and appetite) that made us book a table at Octo Fishbar, Chef Tim McKee’s newish restaurant in Saint Paul’s Lowertown: Its menu promised of Marlin Aguachile ($12, below). And McKee delivered, hitting all the right notes. The marlin was exquisitely fresh and flavorful, and with just a dip in the bright citrus vinaigrette, it was in no danger of being “overcooked.” Charred habanero provided sultry heat, while bits of cucumber and avocado slices kept things cool. It was a delicious summer dish made all the more welcome in the dead of a landlocked winter.
Though we thoroughly enjoyed Octo’s aguachile, we wanted more — literally. It was basically an amuse-bouche for two. And it’s not just that there wasn’t enough of the good stuff; we understand (at least assume) that sashimi-grade marlin is expensive. A couple of extra pieces of marlin, and a few more slices of cucumber, onion, and avocado would have brought it closer to our ideal: the totally satisfying layers of ingredients and flavors that we’d first fallen for in Mexico. We’d happily pay a few more bucks for a plate of our beloved aquachile.
“People up here seem to be more adventurous than people in the Cities,” says Sean Martin, who has helped chef and owner Jack Hang open, and is the front of house manager at Hanabi Japanese Cuisine. “They are willing to try new things and let the chef make something up for them.”
After being open only a month Martin and Hang have already hired four new chefs to keep up with the demand. They have only relied on word of mouth for advertising. News of the new sushi restaurant has spread quickly, as the only other option for sushi is the Zen House in Hermantown and downtown Duluth. “The Zen House is more like home-cooking style sushi, where we are trying to go for high end,” says Martin, adding that he enjoys the Zen House, but wants to bring a different style of sushi to Duluth.
Jack Hang has been training as a sushi chef for six years, but Martin notes, “most sushi chefs in Japan study for eight to ten years.” Before coming to Minnesota, Hang worked at Haru on Wall Street in New York. Martin and Hang met and began working together when they helped open Osaka in Coon Rapids. Martin encouraged Hang to open a restaurant in Duluth. “There is the Thai place [Thai Krathong] but that is all there is up here for a higher end Asian place,” says Martin.
The menu includes both traditional sushi and modern Asian cuisine. “We put on the menu a lot of kitchen food because we were not sure how receptive people would be to the raw stuff,” says Martin. “There are some fish you can freeze because it won’t change the texture, you don’t want to freeze something like tuna.” Hanabi sources fish from JFC and True World in Chicago. They are able to get fish delivered fresh, unfrozen, and multiple times a week. “We can order fish that are not in season, but we prefer to keep what is in season,” says Martin, who is a big fan of Aji, a horse mackerel that is currently in season.
The North Shore Roll ($13), one of the most popular on the menu, is known as an “S roll” in other parts of the country. Salmon and avocado are tightly rolled in sticky rice and topped with seaweed and five types of roe. The roll is dressed with spicy mayo and eel sauce. There are four colorful tobiko types of roe (small eggs harvested from flying fish) and one salmon roe. The tobiko roe are sweet with a gritty sticky texture, where the salmon roe has a waxy shell that can be broken to allow the inner fluid to fill you mouth and accompany the taste of the sushi.
Sake is the focus of Hanabi’s bar, but wine, beer, and a full bar are also available. “Grades [of sake] depend on how polished the rice is,” so Martin has put together a sake menu ranging from $9 to $65+ for 100, 350 or 750 ml bottles. “Sake is drank warm when it is cheap to hide the impurities,” says Martin, and thus Hanabi serves the majority of sakes cold. Since most people coming to the restaurant are new to sake, numbers have been included on the menu to aid customers in selecting a sake suited to their taste. Positive numbers indicate a sake that is drier, more acidic and lighter in body. Negative numbers indicate a sweeter sake with a heavier body.
Hanabi Japanese Cuisine Rating: Good
Japanese cuisine in Duluth
110 N 1st Ave W
Duluth, MN 55802
OWNER: Jack Hang
AVERAGE ENTREE: $10-$15
“It’s like a renaissance painting, but there is a lot of science involved as well,” says Eric Goerdt, owner of Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth, MN. Goerdt has been studying fish smoking since the mid-nineties while stationed in Sitka, Alaska with the Coast Guard. Since opening in ’98, Goerdt has pushed the boundaries of fish smoking and has expanded into other meats including salami.
“The smoke houses up the shore use wood fires — they put the fish in until it reaches the internal temperature it has to reach, which is 145 degrees,” says Goerdt. Goerdt uses modern equipment to give him greater control, in a style of smoking known as kippering. “The key to smoking fish is drying it out before you put it in the smoke house,” says Goerdt, who defines kippering as a cross between hot and cold smoke.
In the bowels of the DeWitt-Seitz building in Canal Park, Goerdt has two smoke houses and a walk-in cooler. Carts stacked with racks of fish are moved from cooler to smoke house at specific times to develop a skin on the fish called the pellicle. The pellicle is “where the smoke meets the outside of the fish and forms a skin; that skin holds the moisture in through the rest of the process,” says Goerdt.
The pellicle is what sets Northern Waters apart from other smokehouses. “We dry it overnight in a cooler so it’s very dry and somewhat tacky,” says Goerdt. “At that point, we put it in a very low temperature smoke house and gradually raise the heat.” The entire process takes about two days. “If you do a good job of gradually raising the heat it will give you a really attractive looking fish that is moist on the inside, but fully cooked. It’s kind of the art of smoking fish,” he says. The texture and the taste are equally important as they can both be indicators of the style of smoking and the care that has been taken in smoking the fish. Goerdt notes: “If you heat up fish too fast, all the proteins leak out of it — it’s almost like someone poured acid on it.”
Attention is also paid to the type of wood used. Finely cut hickory or maple are used because of the taste and temperature that they produce; hickory is currently being used because of the pungent semi-sweet taste that it imparts.
In 2001, Goerdt decided it was time for a challenge and began smoking other meats and tackling the daunting job of making salami. All of his meats are sourced locally: turkey breast from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, bison from the North American Bison Cooperative, and pork from Six Point Berk.
Making salami has been one of the biggest and most rewarding challenges for Goerdt. “It’s the high art of sausage making,” says Goerdt, who notes that “people having been doing it for thousands of years.” The entire process takes about 35 days and requires constant monitoring of pH levels, temperature, and humidity. “You’re putting the culture, which is live bacteria, into the meat, so you’re basically controlling the spoilage of the meat,” says Goerdt.
After the culture (Goerdt uses one from southern Italy) is added to the meat, it is dipped in a penicillin mold and put in the fermentation chamber for three days. The salami is then moved to a drying room for 30 days where it loses 40 percent of its weight. Goerdt says: “To dry salami you need a humid environment, not a dry environment. If you put it in your attic the outside will get too dry, trap the moisture in, and the salami will rot.” The drying room at Northern Waters has humidifiers running to keep the space moist. “A moist environment dries the moisture trying to escape, which helps the outsides of the salami stay supple,” says Goerdt. His salami is only sold in his store front in the DeWitt-Seitz building.
Goerdt recently entered his Salamini Salami to be judged in Armandino Batali’s Salumi Salami Challenge in Seattle, a national competition. “We sent it in to get some feedback and ended up winning,” says Goerdt who proudly displays the trophy in his storefront.
“I see our place as kind of a micro smokery, like a micro brewery. We do all kinds of things and we do them in small batches,” he says. As he moves forward in the art of smoking fish and making salami, he hopes to challenge himself further by attempting prosciutto and cured meats.
Is there such a thing as too much good beer? The recent $65 five-course beer dinner at The Happy Gnome seemed designed to put this proposition to the test; early arrivals to the pub were greeted with a bottomless beer glass from the night’s featured brewery, a Wisconsin upstart called Furthermore.
The bottomless glass was a session beer called Proper from Furthermore — so named because of its English Hops, prominently the Kent Golding. The beer wasn’t weak, and it had a sharp yet pleasing sweetness, two characteristics that rendered it barely recognizable as a session beer.
A little after seven a bearded man addressed the crowd. “We are a two-man operation,” said Chris Staples, the head brewer at Furthermore Beer. He and his partner Aran Madden had come up from Spring Green, WI to attend the dinner.
After explaining the Proper he launched into the beer that was paired with the first course, the Knot Stock. “I include the IBU numbers for the hop heads and the Plato numbers for the stout drinker” said Chris, a man who clearly believed in the reassuring certainty of numbers. He said: “I want the beer head to know what they are getting.” Speaking with palpable passion, he talked not only numbers, but also about the fresh cracked pepper and Northern Brewer hops used in creating the Knot Stock.
First Course:Panzanella Salad, romaine, croutons, olives, feta, tomatoes, onions, creamy black peppercorn dressing
Beer: Knot Stock
The salad boasted fresh greens, crunchy, flavorful croutons and smooth peppercorn dressing. Lots of pepper was present, which prompted the question: Why pepper? After being served a beer with pepper, why would a diner also want a salad with the same spice profile? Two otherwise harmonious tastes put together made for a pepper overload. Is pairing simply a matter of finding synonymous tastes and putting them together? To put a finer point on it: If the beer has pepper, should the salad also have pepper?
For most fish, the term “seasonal” doesn’t really apply: they are grown commercially in fisheries or available year round. One exception is mahi mahi, which hits its peak in the winter months and will probably leave the fishmongers’ stock in a month or so. Coastal Seafoods had some lovely fish in recently (for about $10/pound), and will surely point you in the right direction.
As for sustainability (an important question when it comes to ocean fish) The Monterey Bay Aquarium “Seafood Watch” program lists domestic troll/poll caught mahi mahi as a “best choice.”
Flavor wise, mahi mahi (or mahi-mahi) is a mellow white fish, not quite as firm as swordfish but certainly more steak-like than not. Because it is mild but a little flaky, it is wonderful simply prepared and paired with something acidic and fresh, like a mango salsa or vinegar reduction.
Quick and simple mahi-mahi in February:
Heat a pan to medium/high heat. Rub a little oil, salt, and pepper onto the fish, then place in the pan, flesh side down to get a nice sear. For thick cuts of fish, give this a few minutes to crisp up, then put on a lid and cook until the fish is opaque on the sides (about another 2-5 minutes). Serve with fresh mango salsa — chopped mango, red onion, mint or parsley, lime juice and salt.