Ceviche, carpaccio, crudo and other uncooked foods are trending
By Pam George
Thirty years ago, David Leo Banks never imagined that the hottest items on the menu would be cold — and mostly raw — dishes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most guests turned up their noses at carpaccio, tuna tartare and crudo.
“You had to sear tuna and put an edge on it, or they wouldn’t eat it,” recalls the chef, who owns Banks’ Seafood Kitchen & Raw Bar on the Wilmington Riverfront. Known as tuna tataki, the seared fish slowly gained fans in the Delaware area and remains popular.
But raw is having its day. Credit the acceptance of sushi, sashimi and, of course, tataki. Bank’s Seafood Kitchen devotes a menu section to raw seafood, as does Bardea Steak, which opened in June. The downtown Wilmington restaurant has paired Wagyu beef cheek with uni (eel) and accents red snapper with mulberry and pistachio nuts.
When the temperatures heat up, cold dishes are refreshing. But going raw takes the right stuff, namely the ability to strike a balance.
“One common denominator in raw dishes is acid, fat and salt,” explains Robert Lhulier, executive chef at Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery and Wine Bar in north Wilmington. “In crudo, that’s usually extra virgin olive oil, lemon and sea salt. In sashimi, it’s soy, sesame oil and lime. In ceviche, it can be citrus juice, avocado and a crispy salty garnish, such as corn chips or corn nuts.”
Here are some popular preparations and where to find them. (Remember that eating uncooked or undercooked foods can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses.)
Oysters on the Half Shell
Many restaurants now offer uncooked bivalve mollusks, but they’re prevalent in seafood and steak spots. Served glistening on their shells, raw oysters are packed with protein, healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
But most diners aren’t interested in nutrition. An oyster’s flavor comes from its home turf, and people enjoy tasting the differences.
“I believe the public enjoys playing around with all the different types and accoutrements that come along with them,” says Eric Sugrue, managing partner of Big Fish Restaurant Group, which includes the Trolley Square Oyster House. “It’s a ‘cool’ thing.”
Xavier Teixido, who owns Harry’s Savoy Grill, agrees. When the Brandywine Hundred restaurant opened, it carried two or three types of oysters. Now, like many restaurants, there might be up to six.
“People know the difference between East Coast and West Coast,” he notes.
Along with oysters, you’ll find raw clams at Harry’s Savoy. “They have this nice salinity and sweetness to them,” Teixido says. “They sell well, but not nearly as well as oysters.”
Tartare — made with minced or chopped meat or fish — is an upscale delight. It’s also a lesson in kitchen sustainability. The dish is made with “scraps,” which in culinary terms are small pieces that would otherwise get tossed.
“Chefs turn it into gold,” Sugrue notes.
In the early 1900s, tartare was called Beefsteak à l’Americaine. The name changed when chefs began serving it with tartar sauce. Traditionally, it consists of finely diced, seasoned red meat. (Some cultures prefer horse meat.)
The key is to achieve the right silky, creamy mouth feel. The binding — the ingredients that hold it together — and accompaniments play an essential part. The classic preparation includes onions and capers. And the ruby red mound is topped with a raw egg yolk.
Chefs at Harry’s Savoy Grill chop filet mignon by hand and serve it with an egg yolk cured in salt and sugar. At Le Cavalier in the Hotel du Pont, Tyler Atkins bucks the norm with Castelvetrano tapenade, espelette pepper and potato chips.
Admittedly, many people are skittish about eating minced beef. But seafood is another story. The fish is cubed rather than minced, and there’s often an ethnic flare. For instance, Banks’ Seafood Kitchen serves ahi tuna with miso-and-yuzu crema, sweet soy jalapenos, avocado and sriracha. It comes with toasted wonton crisps for what Banks calls “tuna tartare nachos.”
Asia also meets Mexico at Tonic Seafood & Steak in Wilmington, where the tuna tartare features a sesame-soy sauce, avocado, cucumber, cilantro crema, and fried wontons. While tuna is most frequently found seafood tartare, Hamilton’s on Main in Newark uses Icelandic salmon.
In Italian, crudo means raw — as in raw beef, fish or veal. Some chefs slice the protein. Others prefer a fine dice. When it comes to preparation, simple is best — a drizzle of lemon juice or vinegar and good olive oil.
“Crudo, like any other raw dish, is as much about texture as it is flavor,” explains Lhulier, who had featured crudo as a special. “Therefore, it needs to be tender, so scoring the fish is common. Also, a mild white wine vinegar and water cure allows the skin to come off easier and helps make it more tender.”
Carpaccio has been a mainstay at Piccolina Toscana in Trolley Square for decades. “We’ve tried to take it off the menu a few times, but to no avail,” says owner Dan Butler. “People just keep on ordering it.”
Like crudo, carpaccio is an appropriate choice for an Italian concept. The dish is named for Venetian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, and it rose to fame at Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy, in the 1960s.
The chef thinly slices the protein and pounds it until it’s as delicate as tissue paper and nearly translucent. Butler serves his beef tenderloin with raw onion, Reggiano cheese, capers, avocado, lemon and truffle oil
At Snuff Mill, Lhluiier pairs Wagyu slices with shaved grana Padana cheese and black truffle salt. In Kennett Square, Hearth Kitchen features beef carpaccio au poivre with green peppercorn aioli, pickled shallot, cognac agrodolce and crispy fingerlings.
It’s not unusual to find vegetarian versions. For instance, a thinly sliced tomato can take the place of meat.
Ceviche is a staple throughout Latin America. However, some chefs maintain that ceviche is not a raw preparation, and there’s truth to that. The fish is marinated, which cures or pickles it.
South of the border, each country puts a spin on ceviche. That’s also true in area restaurants. For example, at Crow Bar in Trolley Square, tuna ceviche comes with tostadas, mojo sauce and pickled shallot. The House of William & Merry in Hockessin has served red grouper ceviche with hearts of palm, jicama, chili and coconut crema.
A similar dish, escabeche, is a mainstay in Spanish, Portuguese, Filipino and Latin American cuisines. It includes marinated — or pickled —foods cooked in an acidic sauce, colored with spices and served cold.
Tiradito means “little throw,” Banks says. It grew out of Nikkei cuisine, a mashup of Japanese-Peruvian cooking that evolved after a 19th-century influx of immigrants to Peru.
Banks’ version highlights scarlet snapper, ahi tuna and salmon with sugar-sprinkled soy and sweet potato chips. “It’s absolutely delicious; people crave it,” he says.
Perhaps the trendiest item in the raw food sector was born in Hawaii. Often described as “sushi in a bowl” or “deconstructed sushi,” poke (pronounced poe-kay) is made with cubes of marinated raw fish (mainly tuna), rice, vegetables and sauces.
“Chefs have been getting more and more creative on how to make poke … with lots of different flavors and textures,” Sugrue says. “It’s definitely becoming more mainstream.”
Flavors pull from numerous influences, including the many Asian immigrants who came to Hawaii as laborers from 1850 to 1920.
Nalu Surf Bar & Grille in Rehoboth and Dewey sells more than 100 poke bowls a day in summer. But you don’t need to head to the beach to try it. Slip into a Poke Bros. location or pop into DE.CO for a bowl from Al Chu’s Sushi.
When it comes to any uncooked food, choose your purveyor wisely. You want to trust that the ingredients are fresh and handled correctly. But if you’re worried about eating raw foods, stop and consider whether you like your eggs over-easy or a rare burger, Teixido points out. Unless you want everything well done, there is a risk of a foodborne illness. In short, never eat anything that doesn’t taste or smell right, whether cooked or raw. Trust your instincts.