Asian Carp, the Obtainable Sustainable

April 03 2010 - 9:53 AM

Lockwood_asian_carp It is a distant relation to your pet goldfish. It feeds rapaciously on plankton like an aquatic pig and has a face only a mother could love. It threatens to singlehandedly upend the food chain in our lakes. There are more of them in the Mississippi River basin than in any river in China. Behold the Asian Carp.

Unless you've been living with your head stuck in a riverbed, you have no doubt heard about the latest invasive species threatening to disrupt the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Last week, the Chicago Reader published an issue highlighting the Asian carp, analyzing the battle to halt the carp's spread with electric barriers. How much longer will physical measures stop the invasion? In December 2009, when a six-mile stretch of the Chicago canal was poisoned in order to complete maintenance on the electric barrier, an Asian carp was found among the dead fish. The ensuing brouhaha led several neighboring states to file suit against the state of Illinois, demanding that the commercially-vital locks be completely closed. But it may already be too late. A new eDNA test that detects species-specific DNA in running water has found already found evidence of Asian carp in the waters above the electric fence.

Figuring that "if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em," in February, one enterprising fishmonger distributed batches of Asian carp to ten Chicago restaurants, and then sat back to see what they could do with it. Turns out, not a lot. The Asian carp has anatomical peculiarities that make it nearly impossible for professional chefs to butcher, much less your average home cook. The bones near the front of the fish divide into an unusual Y shape, and there is a thick bloodline that runs along the length of the fillet, which must be carefully removed and further diminishes the yield of usable meat. Some chefs simply gave up. In an email, Paul Kahan said, "After a few attempts at butchering, we were adequately creeped out and will not go any further."

Through the power of YouTube and many hours of trial and error, the fishcutters back at Supreme Lobster and Seafood managed to figure out how to properly harvest the Asian carp. The result was a funky W-shaped "fillet" with two strip loins and two thin belly fillets. Finally, here was a workable piece of fish! And it didn't taste half-bad. Paul Virant of Vie called it "a nice piece of fish" with "very fresh, delicate flavor," and Chris Pandel of the Bristol smoked his fish and was happy with the results. At Lockwood, Phillip Foss presented the Asian carp in a potato shell with pickled celery and black trumpet mushrooms. It was, in fact, really delicious. Foss wrote, "I have served it blind several times to guests with professional palates, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive."

Putting his culinary career and reputation on the line, Foss undertook an amfishious project: to demonstrate that Asian carp deserves a place on haute restaurant menus. In a blog post and series of tweets, he announced that he would be giving away a dozen complimentary Asian carp entrees to people who submitted thoughts on the meaning of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), in less than 140 characters (the maximum length of a tweet).

Immediately, I concocted the following haiku: "Have no religion / Except when at sports events / Or job interviews." Then, I crossed my fingers and waited. Promptly at 4:30 pm, Foss replied to my email saying I'd won a fish dinner for two. Carp-e diem!

On Friday night, Lockwood was an organized bustle, with the flow of diners and staff proceeding as usual. I knew that the menu held a surprise though. Sure enough, near the top was the ignominious Asian carp. "Not an April Fool's Joke, But Good Friday. Slowly Roasted Asian Carp, Provençal Beans with Crabmeat, Grilled Radicchio, Fennel, and Aioli." At $18, the entrée stuck out like a zebra mussel compared to the higher price points of adjacent dishes.

Foss stopped by to welcome us and more importantly, to let us know that he was very interested in what we thought about the fish. After all, this was probably the first time Asian carp had been served at a high-end restaurant in Chicago. Personally, I was more than happy to serve as a guinea pig. I mean, how bad could a giant goldfish taste…?

The carp arrived in a heaping mound, atop white beans laced with crab meat and curlicues of fennel. The grilled radicchio added color and soft bitterness to the dish, and everything was held together with a creamy aioli sauce. The fish itself was topped with a crunchy breadcrumb crust, and flaked easily at the touch of a fork. And how was it? Tender, juicy, clean and flavorful. I told a manager that if I hadn't known better, I would have thought the fish was Chilean sea bass. In comparison, Asian carp is by far a more sustainable choice. And at $18, this dish is ridiculously inexpensive. Ah, the laws of supply and demand.

There are still plenty of kinks to work out before Asian carp appears on menus nationwide, not the least of which is educating chefs about the fish. Foss noted that the carp's structure makes it difficult to debone, and even with his meticulous treatment, there was a small shard of cartilage in my fish. Still, I have high hopes that changing attitudes will be one part of the solution to our ecological problem. Consider me fully sold on the culinary value of Asian carp, and congratulations to Phillip Foss and his staff for a job well-done.

Lockwood (in the Palmer House Hilton)
17 E. Monroe
(312) 917-3404