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October 31, 2008

Boysterous: Starfish's oyster po' boy and the quest for sustainability


There's a spot in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, at the junction of two aisles, from which I sometimes survey all three of the market's fishmongers.  And what I see these days pains me.

Two of the three proudly display Chilean sea bass, and all three usually have some Atlantic cod and grouper, often just a few slots down from the trays of farmed salmon and monkfish.  In other words, these guys sell a lot of unsustainable fish.

I spoke to the manager of one of these shops a few months ago and asked him why so much unsustainable catch makes it into display cases.  His answer was one part cop out, one part foreboding pragmatism.  The obvious reason for selling unsustainably fished species is that customers don't just buy them, they demand them.  But that excuse only stretches so far.  The other reason they do it, according to my piscine Deep Throat, is that there's no longer enough sustainable catch available to fill twenty feet of refrigerated display cases.

More worrisome yet, this trio isn't alone.  I've visited many of Toronto's most reputable fishmongers and they all sell unsustainable seafood.  It's an epidemic.

Now, I'm hardly a saint when it comes to sustainability.  My ignorance of the issue led me down some inexcusable paths.  But I saw the light about a year ago and have since devoted myself to the cause of sustainability with fervour.

I've struggled to educate myself about the issues by reading fantastically helpful books like Bottomfeeder, by Taras Grescoe, and The End of the Line, by Charles Clover.  I carry a wallet-sized copy of SeaChoice's Canada's Seafood Guide with me wherever I go.  I even question servers and fishmongers about the provenance of the seafood they offer.  Most importantly, I've stopped eating unsustainable fish.

But I want to do more.

I got the chance this month thanks to Toronto Life.  I'm in the process of writing a sidebar for the January issue that identifies a handful of sustainable restaurant dishes in Toronto.  It hasn't been easy.  I now understand how difficult it must be to fill a display case with sustainable seafood.  Finding five dishes took hours of digging and led me down a lot of false paths.

Until now, for example, I'd always assumed that McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, made largely of Alaskan pollock, represents one of the best seafood choices available.  The fishery earned Maritime Stewardship Council (MSC) certification and was routinely cited as an exemplar of industry best practices.  This year, according to Greenpeace, catches have plummeted almost fifty percent and a collapse of the fishery, along with the ecosystem it supports, is possible.  Goodbye fish sticks and California rolls.

I can move on, I thought, there are plenty of fish in the sea.  Having digested the lessons of Bottomfeeder, I immediately sought out something small and oily, like anchovies, only to discover that the MSC listed the Atlantic anchovy as a fish to avoid now that the Bay of Biscay fishery has collapsed and stocks in the remaining Portuguese fishery have sunk to critical levels.

Researching this piece was a struggle, but it had its rewards.

First, there are a handful of restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area that care enough to at least make some effort to serve sustainable seafood.  Jamie Kennedy has long been the poster boy for sustainability in this town, but the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise programme identifies five local restaurants that serve sustainable dishes:

1. Amuse-Bouche
2. C5
4. Pangaea Restaurant
5. Trios Bistro

I also learned that SeaChoice has worked with a handful of restaurants that "are at least engaged to some degree:"

1. Jamie Kennedy Kitchens
2. Reds Bistro & Wine Bar
3. Scaramouche
4. Cowbell
5. Oliver Bonacini
6. Oyster Boy
7. Niagara Street Café
8. The Drake Hotel
9. Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill

Second, my research connected me with Taina Uitto, the national manager of SeaChoice, Canada's pre-eminent advocacy group for sustainable seafood, and the publisher of Canada's Seafood Guide, a handy wallet-sized card that takes much of the confusion out of buying seafood. 

Uitto's passion for the subject is obvious, and her expertise invaluable.  She also eloquently articulates the sort of perspective we all need to adopt if wild seafood is to survive: "So... things are not that simple.  But, what I always say to people is that is asking the questions really that big of a deal?  If you had a peanut allergy, would you be afraid to ask whether there are nuts in a dish?  I feel the same about seafood.  I have a certain allergy to unsustainability, and don’t want to put that in my body.  Even if you don’t get the answers, and it seems like a bother, and you might even end up making a choice that you are not 100% sure about, even asking the question helps.  We get feedback from the industry that change is really brought on by the consumers asking for answers (and sustainable options), which makes the company go looking.  We may not be there yet, but we need help getting there from consumers."

I owe my third and final discovery to Patrick McMurray, owner of Starfish and elite oyster shucker.  I happened to contact him the day before his restaurant hosted an event for A Good Catch, a new cookbook by Jill Lambert that features recipes for sustainable fish from Canada's best chefs as well as a species by species guide to choosing fish and a list of readily available alternatives to popular but unsustainable species.  It is essential reading for anyone who loves to cook seafood and cares about the fate of the oceans.

So, the minute I cracked the cover, I knew I had to choose one of the recipes from A Good Catch for the leather district gourmet's Teach a Man to Fish 2008 sustainable seafood event.  I didn't have to search that long, either.  Given that Patrick McMurray led me to Jill and the a book, it seemed only fitting that I use his recipe.  Of course, it didn't hurt that his dish is a fantastic oyster po' boy sandwich.

A po' boy is a hot sandwich traditionally made with fried oysters or shrimp on a crusty French-style loaf, often dressed with a little lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.  It's about as New Orleans as you can get, on a par with jazz and Hurricane cocktails.  Patrick McMurray's version hews pretty closely to New Orleans tradition.  The only difference is in the breading -- he uses Japanese panko bread crumbs

Choosing a suitable bread can be tricky, but Rachel and I never really had a doubt.  We live around the corner from The Fish Store & Sandwiches, the very definition of a hole-in-the-wall foodie destination, and they serve their delicious (but, unfortunately, not always sustainable) sandwiches on a wonderfully light, slightly yeasty Portuguese loaf, with a chewy crumb and delicate crust.  That loaf comes from the Golden Wheat bakery across the street, so we asked around and learned that the rolls in question are called Pão de Mafra, and picked up a couple for our po' boys.

They are "POW!" awesome with this sandwich, especially slathered with a little homemade tartar sauce and gilded with a half dozen oysters straight out of the frying pan.  I loved mine so much that I ate it with a suspicious glare and hunched shoulders, as if I were wary of some interloper dashing into my home and stealing my po' boy out from under my nose.

Oh yeah, aside from tasting incredible, few seafood options are more sustainable than a farmed oyster, the world's greatest bivalve.  Farmed properly, that little Malpeque actually cleans the water it inhabits.  Raw or cooked, we should be eating more of them. 

I've already described this city's need for a sustainable fishmonger, and I'm convinced that the first person to do it will make a lot of money.  Toronto foodies have already shown a willingness to pay exorbitant prices for their organic, responsibly farmed meat at Cumbrae's and The Healthy Butcher.  It's a winning business model.  I know, because every few weeks Rachel and I visit one or both places and wait our turn to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a free range chicken, a slab of smokey bacon, or a tender short rib.  Above all else, however, we do it for the chance to vote with our dollars for a food choice that mitigates suffering and ecological damage.

I just want the same option when buying seafood.


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Hi Rob, very interesting your point of view about also fish. I live close The Healthy buchtery on Queen. As you says, I easly found in Toronto organic and sustainable meat, but for seafood not yet..

Seafood Recipes

Also has white gold starfish on the end of the chain.


Well Ill be seeing Taina this Wednesday when she comes down to the restaurant for dinner.

and November is Oceanwise Month

Always nice to see people promoting Seachoice/Oceanwise.

A Kettle of Fish Restaurant


Great post.

I agree that the local/organic/sustainability movement has done great work with meat - I know plenty of places where I can find local meat in Boston - but not so much with fish and seafood.


Hey Rob,
During your research, did you learn what countries are the most responsible for the pillaging of our oceans ?

Any thoughts on the Euro warships that enter our waters and take home as much as they can hold ?

I support sustainable eating, but it is frustrasting when most of the other countries in the world couldn't care less and continue to stuff their gullets with endangered species and fish that are not too sustainable in the first place.

Brian Tobin might have been the last CDN politician with stones to do something about the rape and pillaging of our fish stocks.


Thanks for recognizing Pangaea. Martin is passionately committed to sustainability and works so hard to make sure he writes a responsible menu. It's great to see people becoming aware of the issues affecting our aquatic populations!

James Naquin

Hi Rob, it has been a long time since I have posted, but still read every post.
Several years ago in Louisiana, commercial fishing of certain salt water species like red snapper and red drum were put to a halt. I am sure it put a damper on fishermen's income, but the species in question made a relatively quick comeback. This allowed commercial fishing to once again become an economically vital and sustaining industry. Careful management of the fisheries has kept the fish populations in check and these fish still appear on menus in South LA.
We vote on what happens to the food we consume everyday with our dollars. The ultimate responsibility falls into the hands of the consumers. The incentive must be presented that if you don't allow the fish to repopulate you have nothing to eat. Wait a while and the return will benefit us all.
Balance and conscious consumption seem to be the biggest challenge for our human race. Go figure.
James Naquin
Watts Grocery
Durham, NC

Scott at Realepicurean

My only knowledge of an oyster po'boy is from the Hairy Bikers program - but that's not too much of a bad thing in my eyes. Yours looks much the same as theirs so at least I know it's authentic!

Pat Anderson

It's a challenge. As more of us request only sustainable fish, the market will change. Mike's, at the St. Lawrence Market, had a sign for a while (I don't know if it's sitll there) tha they refuse to carry Chilean Sea Bass (Patagonian toothfish) because it was being fished into extinction. I felt that was an honourable thing for them to do. It's not easy to eat sustainable seafood, alas. It requires a lot of work to find out what is sustainable *where* and what is not sustainable at all.


Seafoods are always delicious and tasty. We will always want it.

I think as long as we keep the balance life in the ocean we'll never run out of seafood supplies.

Nike Shox

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