The two smaller fish, in the center and on the far left, are cobia. Photo credit: StockFood
Black kingfish, black salmon, ling, lemonfish. Perhaps you’ve puzzled over these curious fish.
They’re all cobia, a peach-fleshed fish with grayish-brown skin. Its signature white belly often confuses fishers, who sometimes mistake it for a small shark.
"It’s a weird fish because it’s meaty and dense like sturgeon, but it’s fatty like hamachi,” explained Robert DeMasco, owner of New York City-based seafood distributor Pierless Fish Corp. (“Hamachi" is the Japanese name for yellowtail.)
For the last year and a half, DeMasco has sold cobia sourced from Panama-based Open Blue, the world’s largest open fish farm. That means, in Open Blue’s case, that the cobia are raised six miles out to sea, and the nets used to catch them never touch the ocean floor. The company has caught the attention of CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, who recently praised its sustainability efforts and called founder Brian O’Hanlon a "visionary.”
So it’s sustainable. And it tastes fantastic, which is chief among chefs’ concerns.
DeMasco keeps an impressive roster of lauded East Coast restaurants stocked with the fish, including Le Bernardin, Mas, Pok Pok, The Modern, Craft, Gramercy Tavern, and The Sea Grill in New York City; CityZen in Washington, D.C.; and Little Fish and Serpico in Philadelphia.
"People are very stubborn" when it comes to trying new things, DeMasco lamented, but "the higher-end chefs are a little more prone to try different things." Once they learn more about Open Blue’s sustainability mission, the chefs "are not taken aback that [the fish] was farm-raised in Panama." And then they taste it. "They start going, ‘Oh, maybe it isn’t so bad.’”
At Gramercy Tavern, cobia has been on and off the menu for about six years, according to executive sous chef Howard Kalachnikoff. “We prefer it grilled,” he said. “We think that the smoke flavor from the [wood-burning] grill just goes real well with the flesh.” At medium doneness, the fish’s flesh is dense and meaty, and Kalachnikoff serves it with rolled oats simmered in mushroom stock, grilled shiitake mushrooms, and sautéed bok choy leaves dressed in mushroom vinaigrette.
At the Sea Grill, executive chef Yuhi Fujinaga prefers to serve cobia raw. “When you grill it, it becomes heartier,” Fujinaga said. “But when you’re having it raw, it’s very light in comparison.” How he’s serving cobia right now: raw and thickly-sliced, dressed in duck fat-infused miso glaze, and topped with a bright salad of cucumber, carrot, and scallion.
In addition to the several restaurants Pierless serves, home cooks can buy the fish online through the company’s web site. A one pound fillet runs a pricey $16.95. Freshness will cost you, apparently.
But prices haven’t deterred some, and DeMasco has high hopes for cobia. Last year, he sold about 30,000 pounds of the fish and he intends to double that figure in 2014. But he knows it’s an uphill battle.
"It hasn’t really gotten traction like it should. If it’s not a certain thing that [people] recognize, [they] don’t buy it," he said. "Meanwhile, it’s amazing.”