See All the Fishburgers Here!
In the last few weeks, I had the unique pleasure, and responsibility, to taste test a new indigenous food product from the East End: the Montauk Fishburger. A natural extension of the region’s diverse and abundant food culture, this new product from Dock to Dish creates delicious value on many levels — nutritional, ecological, economic — while delivering an umami bomb not always achievable with locavore fare. The burger is also disruptive because it can reduce fish waste by up to 65 percent, while expanding the market for sustainability caught seafood.
The current version is being piloted at restaurants on the East End, in Westchester and in New York City, as well as at public schools in Manhattan and Bridgehampton. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. And while I was nom-noming through a lucky 13 versions, accompanied by family and friends, certain essential truths about what defines a great fishburger became apparent. (I asked my daughter what makes a great fish burger. She said, “No bones.”)
1. It’s all about the toppings.
While the plain fishburger on the bun was fine, it was so much more fun dressed with tartar or spicy mayo, layered with crunchy pickles and even sitting under an egg. “It’s all about the sauce and accompaniments,” says Joe Realmuto, executive chef at the restaurant group that includes Nick & Toni’s, La Fondito, Townline BBQ and the beer pub Rowdy Hall, where the burger is being tested. Realmuto is playing around with five versions: including a decadent permutation topped with a fried egg and onions; a friend Filet-o-Fish-esque version topped with American cheese; and my favorite, the one topped with kimchi and sriracha mayo. When chef Jason Weiner at Almond restaurant was gathering feedback on his version, initially similarly his beef burgers, with house made bread and butter pickles, spicy salad greens, onions and tomato, the feedback from friends and family ultimately pushed him to fry the burger (some diners were craving more of a crunch) and top it with generous dabs of tartar sauce and a fennel slaw.
2. You don’t need a bun.
While many of the chefs adding the fishburger to their menu aim to replicate the burger eating experience, many in my clan were looking for something different. For them, the most popular versions didn’t have a bun, although brioche or sandwich-style bread won out over the standard burger bun. The school kids in Bridgehampton who tried the fish burger a few weeks ago are still raving about the bun made from wheat grown at Amber Waves Farm and baked by Carissa Waechter. The version at Bell & Anchor, whic came on top a Caesar salad, accompanied by shishito peppers, was particularly popular with the gluten-averse set. So was the Rowdy Hall version that sat next to a winter salad of squash, cabbage, pomegranate and romanesco sauce. One morning, with leftovers from the tasting, we cooked the remains of a fishburger with rice and egg. Call it fishburger fried rice.
3. Use the whole fish and the whole fishing chain.
This burger uses as much of the fish as possible, except for the guts, skin and, yes, bones. It’s revolutionary because it’s made almost entirely from pieces of fish that would be thrown out, and in fact have been thrown out. (The average yield for Atlantic finfish is 35 percent, meaning that the remaining 65 percent gets thrown away.) “We’re putting that into the Dumpster for some lucky seagull,” says Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish, “and most of it goes into the landfill.” Even better, the burger uses all fish in a fishery, what Barrett calls “underloved fish,” — which takes pressure off desired species and gives fishers a more stable year-round income. Plenty of great chefs and fish mongers already create their own fishcakes from their scraps; Barrett aims to do it at larger scale with species not typically sold in many restaurants and seafood shops. He envisions eight to 10 recipes throughout the year as certain species come into season and others phase out. Every version will contain some tuna — for fat and flavor — but may also include bluefish, golden tilefish, black seabass, dogfish, Montauk seabreem/scup/porgie, skate, fluke and yellowtail flounder, and probably less prominent butterfish and sea robin and any of the other three dozen species approved in the Montauk fishery by NOAA’s fish watch program.