seafood appetizers make a splash
the right wine
by Kathy Blake
It’s true; there are as many ways to entice customers with the fresh and vibrant flavors of seafood as there are, well, fish in the sea. Take it from chefs and beverage managers who know: irresistible seafood appetizers can build your check average AND increase beverage sales.
Served as a starter or as a bar snack, seafood appetizers can give restaurant patrons what they want in terms of flavor and variety and can enhance an operations’ reputation as a place for a light and healthy bite. And with customers usually prepared for the higher prices most seafood dishes can command, small plates served at tables or the bar can add up. Making sure each of these dishes is accompanied with beer and wine matches either on the menu or through suggested selling is a compelling method to assure that beverage sales follow seafood sales upstream.
At Kings Fish House, a growing chain of restaurants owned by the California-based University Restaurant Group, by-the-glass beer and wines are most often ordered to accompany seafood appetizers, according to beverage manager Mitchell Cohen. Most casual dining customers are unlikely to order full bottles of wine with the appetizer course, and fresh white wine and beer are often the easiest decision to make. Accordingly, Kings lists many beers, from lights to Acme Brown Ale, Dixie Voodoo Lager and Sierra Nevada Stout.
Seven micro-brews are listed from palest to heaviest and include the house brand, King Crab Honey Ale, Samuel Adams Lager and Grants Amber Ale. Prices range from a taster at $1.75 up to $4.95 for 23 ounces.
Kings’ list of nine wines-by-the-glass ($4.25 to $5.75) are ranged from lightest to most full-bodied and each wine is listed with a brief, consumer-friendly description. Fetzer Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, is “crisp, light grassiness and great with shellfish;” and Duckpond Pinot Noir is noted as possessing “dried cherries, smoky and earthy flavors.”
Bill Matthews, director of operations, says that the all-American fish house concept is targeted at the family market by offering quality and variety “a cut above the usual.”
One of the best selling appetizers at Kings Fish House is fried calamari, $5.95 at lunch. “We go through about 400 pounds a week,” Matthews reports. The fresh calamari is dipped in a Tabasco/Worcestershire mixture, then dusted with flour and deep-fried in canola oil.
“When the Copper River salmon are running, we promote salmon appetizers, including salmon cakes served with a remoulade,” Matthews says. Another popular seasonal appetizer is soft shell crab, especially when prepared with an Asian twist and served with orange-ginger sauce, or made Cajun-style, dredged in egg wash and spiced flour and served with Tabasco aioli ($7.95).
William Kinser, general manager and sommelier at Oceana, NYC’s critically popular fine dining house, reports that his list of 650 wines covers all contingencies and is well-geared to the flavors of chef Rick Moonen’s food. “Rick’s food has influences from Asia, the Mediterranean and the Americas,” Kinser says, “but no matter the dominant flavor, I often recommend a clean, acidic sauvignon blanc, although most of the white wines on the list are chardonnays, many American.
“A New Zealand wine has arrived recently that we’re very excited about. It’s a sauvignon blanc from Brancott Wineries and has a bright, apple and citrus flavor. Big and wonderful with seafood.”
To make Oceana’s long wine list as customer-friendly as possible, Kinser wrote a four-page introduction that lists his seasonal favorites and a guide for matching food and wine. He also lists wines by-the-glass on “The Short List,” two pages of about 50 reds and whites, changed seasonally and suited to the menu.
Flexibility on the list is important, says Moonen, because he often auditions new menu ideas as appetizers first “to test the waters.” If successful, the concepts can be parlayed into entrees.
Some appetizers can never leave the menu, Moonen says. “No matter what, there are appetizers we cannot take off the menu!” Lobster Ravioli, for example, is a signature at Oceana.
The base for the ravioli filling is a creamy polenta with vegetables and lobster stirred in with egg to bind the mixture. The filling is sealed in very thin wonton wrappers and served in a reduction made with fresh tomato, vegetables and basil. Four large raviolis are served in the broth, garnished with fresh basil.
Another Oceana menu-must appetizer is a selection of raw oysters. “By now, our customers know and trust us to serve only the best oysters,” Moonen says. “Every shipment is tested at the source and every box comes with a certificate attached. That’s the kind of thing we stress in training servers. Before every service, we have a pep talk and give them the information they need to sell with confidence including a description of the flavors and sources of the oysters.”
Recently, Moonen introduced an appetizer he fell in love with while traveling in Spain–anchovies, preserved in olive oil. He recently started to do the same thing with fresh sardines at Oceana. “At first customers said, ‘Uh, what?’ But they tried them, and now I sell a ton of them!”
Served with nan that is grilled until slightly charred, the sardine bocaronas are “the best of all worlds,” Moonen says. “You get that wonderful fresh sardine flavor plus the charred bread and a small salad.”
David Alphonse, director of beverage operations at Boston-based Legal Seafood (up to 16 units along the East Coast and growing), says he developed the wine list to accommodate the operation’s diverse, international clientele whose wine preferences vary.
“Naturally, we carry the popular wine labels, like Kendall-Jackson and Beringer,” Alphonse says. “But, we have some eclectic selections, too, like Jarvis, Au Bon Climat and Primback. The Primback Pinot Gris is perfect with starters such as crab or smoked salmon.”
Alphonse has also taken on the problematic task of listing as many as 40 half-bottles. “More than anything, I like to offer half bottles,” Alphonse says. “They cost me more, and I don’t make my full margins on them, but that’s O.K. because it gives the customers a chance to upgrade and try something new.”
Year-round, Maryland crab cakes are a hot seller at Legal Seafood. The 4-ounce crab cakes are served with mustard sauce and mesclun salad with red and yellow tomatoes. When tomatoes are not available, the salad is made with apple slices and apple cider vinaigrette.
Rich Vellante, executive chef and director of operations, says that the raw bar is a signature at all locations. The fresh seafood, displayed on an ice shelf at the bar, includes oysters, little necks and cherrystones.
“We get questions from customers about the raw seafood,” Vellante says, “but we have a system that’s worked perfectly for nine years now. We have a buyer specialist and an in-house biology lab where all seafood is quarantined for a day and tested before it’s served.”
In land-locked Salt Lake City, Market Street Grill & Oyster Bar, one of seven concepts owned by the Gastronomy group, wine salesmanship takes extra effort, according to general manager Robert Halladay. He recently took over Market Street’s beverage management spot and says his first step has been to invite wine brokers to educate the staff so they can pass on more useful information to customers.
“I want to keep the list fresh and by doing that, introduce new items and educate our guests,” says Halladay. “Our challenge in this market is that if a wine isn’t known to the customer, it just doesn’t sell.”