Whether you like it fried, grilled, or stuffed with crab, Charleston's seafood is among the world's best. It's hard to beat shrimp, oysters, blue crabs, stone crabs, trout, flounder, and red drum as staple food stocks. But those stocks are becoming increasingly threatened as demand for seafood grows. Once-abundant species the world over are growing more and more scarce as they get overfished.
Recognizing the ocean's mortality, the South Carolina Aquarium began the Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SSI) in 2002, an effort that encourages both consumers and businesses to make responsible decisions about their eating habits. Restaurants that join agree not to serve species that are in danger of extinction or depletion in exchange for the publicity of membership and the role of a good steward. The program promotes the health of fledging species as well as supporting local, managed fisheries as opposed to foreign markets, which have fewer environmental restrictions.
The Initiative has already had an impact on species like swordfish, whose Atlantic catch numbers have dropped from 38,000 metric tons and near obliteration in 1995 to 11,000 metric tons in 2005 and a quickly rebounding population. Other endangered species like the orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and imported shark are strictly off-limits to any SSI-participating restaurant.
"What we don't want to do with the ocean is go in and clearcut it," says Dr. John Dean, an SSI steering committee member and senior fellow in science and ocean policy at the University of South Carolina's Baruch Institute. He says, as with a forest, careful management of our ocean resources will ensure that when we return for more, the supply will be available.
Rather than trying to distribute printed materials to a wide public audience, SSI decided their limited funding would go the farthest by acquiring restaurant partners and then distributing and promoting these establishments. Although the requirement for membership is simply to not serve the threatened species, many restaurateurs have taken it upon themselves to offer predominantly local, sustainable items, even educating their employees on the specifics about each fish they serve.
Because South Carolina's restaurants are a year-round business and our fisheries are not, species like shrimp and crabs have to be imported in the winter months. Charleston is also headquarters for Wild American Shrimp, an organization dedicated to promoting and sustaining the local catch (only 15 percent of shrimp served in the U.S. are American-caught). Because some restaurants are members but may not serve any local seafood, SSI is currently developing a system of participation levels to further reward those businesses that go the extra mile to adapt their menu, ensuring they're serving sustainable seafood all year long.
SSI hopes that a consumer can eventually visit a participating restaurant and order anything off the menu in good conscience. Here's a few of the places to enjoy the priceless joy of a guilt-free seafood dinner in Charleston.
To print out a list of participating SSI restaurants, visit www.scaquarium.org.
Pinot Grigio Poached Skate
Daniel Island. 901 Island Park Dr. 881-8820
Sienna chef and owner Ken Vedrinski left a comfortable post at the Woodlands Dining Room in Summerville to start his northern Italian restaurant in 2004, apparently for all the right reasons. He grows his own herbs, rolls his own pasta, and is willing to pay a premium to serve quality. The menu is based on what's in season, and you won't find an unsustainable item in their kitchen. He often has skate (a sort-of shark/ray hybrid, cartilaginous fish) flown down from New England, a species once regarded as throwaway by-catch from fisheries dredging for scallops or cod. Always serving it within a day of arrival, Sienna poaches a skate wing with pinot grigio, shallots, garlic, and olive oil to produce a tender but pleasantly crisp piece of fish. The cut is doused in a sauce that appears and tastes succulently buttery, but is actually a whipped olive oil from Italy's Ligurian region. Depending on the day or time of year, diners may find the dish topped with tiny clams, tomatoes, and fresh marjoram from the garden, and any assortment of homemade noodles. "The menu is based on whatever nature offers," says Vedrinksi.
Carolina Crab Cake Soufflé
Downtown. 149 Wentworth St. 853-7828
The Wentworth Mansion's Circa 1886 is impeccable, from the service to the courtyard tables. Dining in the garden under a full moon proves an idyllic setting for savoring the creativity of Chef Marc Collins. A signature dish, their Carolina Crab Cake Soufflé, is topped with crisp strands of sweet potato and sparingly complemented by a mango and pineapple relish. The cakes themselves are fine simplicity, designed without filler and chopped to a texture reminiscent of the perfect Carolina barbecue. Worth more than a note is Circa's swordfish, another local species that recently made it back onto SSI's approved list. Marinated in an allspice blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and star anise, Chef Collins then serves it on a bed of beet-juice-infused rice-grits, a synthesis that marries perfectly with the texture of the precisely grilled filet. Circa's most innovative seafood dish may be the flounder, flattened and pounded into delicate, pastry-like pieces that are then stuffed with a puréed lobster mousse. Presented with asparagus and brie cheese truffles, these sweetly ambrosial morsels are what King Neptune must have ordered at the 20,000 League Bakery.
Yellowfin Tuna Tacos
Red Drum Gastropub
Mt. Pleasant. 803 Coleman Blvd. 849-0313
Red Drum Gastropub organically blends a casual atmosphere with a fine dining attitude. With a dozen microbrewed beers on tap from around the world, you could easily get swilly enough for anything to taste good, but Chef Ben Berryhill's culinary skills stand alone. Seared yellowfin tuna tacos are plated alongside a pile of cowboy beans that resembles burgoo, Kentucky's signature stew. The simplest (and best) dish we tried were the local clams, recently featured as SSI's "species of the quarter." The mollusks are delivered daily to Red Drum by mud-covered clammer Tobias VanBuren, who collects them from a secret spot around Breach Inlet. Chef Berryhill steams them with white wine, red peppers, butter, and garlic until they open, then presents them with dried chiles, fresh cilantro, and Texas toast. Perfectly cooked, these smooth, delectable clams may have replaced their oyster cousins as our favorite local bivalve.
Downtown. 442 King St. 722-3474
Fish managing partner Randall Goldman sits on SSI's steering committee, an indication that they take their membership seriously. Waiters are instructed on both the Initiative's purpose and the particulars of each species on the restaurant's constantly evolving menu. When local shrimp are in season, Chef Ryan Herrmann uses the Lowcountry's most predominant crustacean to put creative twists on classic dishes like ceviche and étouffée. For the ceviche, shrimp are blanched and marinated in a coconut milk and pepper combo that hints of curry before being laid in a cocktail glass bed of shredded lettuce. A take on a New Orleans signature crawfish dish, the étouffée is a creamy blend of corn, Carolina rice, and shrimp, the kind of soothing, warm dish you want to eat bowl after bowl of. Their speckled sea trout, perhaps the most abundant edible fish in area rivers, is cooked with lemon until it flakes off the skin, then served alongside black bean and garbanzo cakes and crisp, steamed broccoli. When it's in season, wreckfish becomes a signature dish at Fish. The local species is only available in one fishery off of the S.C. coast. Three boats, two of which dock at Wadmalaw Island's Cherry Point, drop hooks into 1,200 feet of water to lure the bottom-dwellers, and their catch has proved a summertime favorite.