When you first walk into Eventide Restaurant on Middle St. in Portland, Maine, you get a sensation that you’re going to like the restaurant before even taking a bite of food. Good atmosphere? Check. Nice looking oyster bar and cool art? Check. Is that Warren G playing? I like it.
Eventide is part of Big Tree Hospitality, the group that also represents Hugo’s and The Honeypaw, and now Eventide Fenway, the “counter-style reimagining of Eventide Oyster Co.” located on Boylston St. in Boston. These restaurants are for people that like food, like the entirety of food; its story, culture, how do you prepare it, how do you eat it, and even attempts some of these formulations at home. The consumer that dines out with high expectations because hey, if they wanted to eat some pork belly they could just stay home and cook it themselves. No, this restaurant goer has a sous vide at home and knows how to use it so, you better bring it chefs. If you’re one of those types of consumers and you want to try something new or experience say, a daikon radish in some pragmatic preparation, then the restaurants of Big Tree Hospitality are for you.
You know how I know this? Mike Wiley, chef and co-owner of Big Tree, serves bluefin tuna. And it’s delicious. “I didn’t know much about bluefin tuna but when Eventide started moving large quantities of fish we started to do a little research because we’re excited about making local food really good. More so [excited] than about foie gras and caviar; you can clap your hands and summon that in Minneapolis just as well ask you can in Maine.”
They started small, using the leftover parts of the bluefin from the fishmongers. Things like the collar with the pectoral fin still attached. They explored ideas like serving bluefin on the fin, so people could see a part of the fish while eating crudo four ways. They hunted through old Japanese cookbooks for new preparations to try. They learned how to crack the vertebrae and extract the marrow, which Wiley says looks like clear gelatin and claims, “If you shoot it raw, it’s like the cleanest oyster you’ve ever had in your life. It is phenomenal.” They researched and asked questions to make sure they were serving a good product and had the facts about the fish to share with their customers, “If they [customers] have concerns and questions about sustainability, those are the people we want on our side. Those are the people who are doing the right thing. Maybe they don’t’ have all the facts yet but their hearts are in the right place and they want to be making more informed decisions about what they’re eating. And if we can assure them and assuage their fears and answer them with delicious food then that’s when I feel like we’re doing our job. That’s when the whole thing works.”
It only takes a trend to create a movement.
Take Japanese soba making for example. You can watch a hypnotizing video of a Japanese chef making noodles with such care and precision HERE. Wiley said it wasn’t too long ago that you couldn’t talk with customers about techniques and now that has changed; diners are willing to learn more and talk about sophisticated methods and what was once lesser known ingredients like lovage or ghee or transglutaminase. Maybe soon we will be comparing rolling pins and discussing which is best for homemade soba noodles. Personally, I hope that we move towards a more diverse seafood diet that is decided by the seasons and what fishermen are telling us are abundant.
Wiley’s last thoughts about it, “Slowly but surely Americans are getting hip to the fact that seafood can be mind-bending-ly delicious, and it’s not all about pork belly and Wagyu steak and all that jazz. You can’t claim you’re a foodie and say you don’t like fish. I think people are realizing, ‘I need to expand my horizons a little bit and maybe I didn’t grow up eating this stuff but it’s worth trying.”
SIDEBAR: If you want to learn more about the management of bluefin tuna, please check out Tuna, Debunked: Myths and Misconceptions About Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. What’s management, you ask? Fisheries management is basically how a species is protected and you can learn more about it here. If you want to eat fish, good fish that is considered sustainable, please dig a little deeper than your average stoplight seafood guide. If you’re all “Jesus, take the wheel,” that’s cool, too. We’re here to talk about yummy fish and hardworking fishermen and there’s a place for everyone at this newspaper covered table.