Finest At Sea lives up to its name
Words Angela Cowan > Photography Don Denton
The sun beats down on this summery Sunday afternoon, and as the wind shifts direction, it brings with it the smells and sounds of sizzling batter. It’s enough to make my mouth start watering, and I cannot wait for my own plate to arrive.
Settled in a brick-framed shop front in Kerrisdale, Finest At Sea runs a spacious market stuffed with an abundance of everything from fillets to smoked fish, risottos, chowders and so much more, and it also runs a bustling fish and chips trade. And all of it is made from the highest quality seafood.
“We never lose sight of our fish,” says Jennifer Gidora, operations manager for both the Victoria and Vancouver locations.
“The boats come in, the fish is processed on site here,” she explains, emphasizing that all their products have 100 per cent traceability. “We know what vessel it came from, who the captain was, the area it was caught, everything.”
She’s brought me an apricot sparkling water and an artfully laid small platter of smoked fish and spiced olives as she sits down to chat, and the light, semi-sweet bubbly is the perfect accompaniment to the array of appetizers.
Finest At Sea does about 16 different smoked fish offerings, says Jennifer, and in front of me now are four: alderwood cold-smoked tuna, smoked sockeye, candied spring salmon and candied sablefish.
I spear a piece of the tuna first, and it’s light and a little chewy, with a fresh flavour that pairs nicely with a bite of one of the olives. The smoked sockeye is next, brilliant orange and firm-textured. There is definitely no mush on these smoked fishes. The candied spring salmon is sweet and chewy, leaving sticky smears on my fingertips. And then there’s the sablefish.
Oh, the sablefish.
Buttery is the only word that comes close to describing the melt-on-the-tongue texture as I fork my first mouthful. It’s rich and soft, and intensely flavourful in a seemingly contradictory subtle way, and I can’t seem to stop eating it. And then all that’s left is a light smear on the platter and a lingering heat on the back of my tongue.
I glance up with eyes wide in flavour heaven and Jennifer laughs when I tell her it’s the single best piece of fish I’ve ever put in my mouth.
“It’s crazy the extent we go to to catch these fish!” she tells me. They’re found far, far north, essentially on the border with Alaska, in the “deepest, darkest, coldest parts of the ocean,” as far down as 3,000 feet, and so are incredibly fatty.
And it doesn’t have to be smoked to be delicious. For anyone who’s perhaps been hesitant to bring home a piece of this premium fish and try their own hand at cooking it, Jennifer has nothing but encouragement.
“You cannot overcook sablefish,” she says firmly. “You could put it in the oven and come back three hours later, and it will still be the best fish you’ve ever eaten.”
My next tasting course is a cold-smoked tuna taco and a fresh-from-the-fryer piece of battered lingcod. I give it a minute to cool and take on the taco first. Here, the tuna is seared quickly on both sides, then layered under chipotle mayo, house-made salsa and slaw, and it offers a tasty mix of chewy and crunchy textures, with a good amount of smoky spice.
But as good as the taco is, my heart forever lies with all things battered and deep fried, and this is easily one of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.
Finest At Sea offers halibut, salmon and lingcod in its deep-fried selections, and I find I’m partial to the lingcod. While halibut is a favourite for grilling and baking, it also has a more delicate flavour and texture, and the richer flavour of the lingcod stands up beautifully to the fryer.
I take my first bite bare of any tartar sauce, and as I crunch through the outer layer, the sound of the crisped batter breaking apart is as satisfying as the rich flavour. And then for the rest of it, I sort of forget I’m supposed to be savouring this experience to write about it, and the lingcod (and three-quarters of the perfectly salted fries beneath) disappear, until all that’s left are my lightly oiled fingers and a few stray crumbles of fish batter.
I lean back, surprisingly stuffed from all my plates, and enjoy the atmosphere, which feels a little wild, a little overflowing, a little loud and a lot friendly. And that’s all down to Jennifer’s intrepid employer and Finest At Sea owner, Bob Fraumeni, who took a childhood obsession with the sea and turned it into a nearly 50-year-old business that’s grown and adapted over the years.
And Bob is as passionate about fish as he ever was, says Jennifer.
“You know how some people say they live, work and breathe what they love? Bob is the only person I’ve ever known who actually does it. He loves fish,” she says. “That’s what it is. It’s his passion.”