You know that the passenger pigeon is extinct—but do you know why? Because they were delicious—in pies, roast, potted, broiled, stuffed, pan-seared. And where were the passenger pigeon rescue societies when Midwesterners were netting passenger pigeons by the thousand, and sending them off to New York piled on the decks of ships? Nowhere. I found this out while I was researching a jaw-dropping fish story, "After the Oceans," for the May issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Get a copy, I think you’ll be amazed. The parallels between wild birds and seafood are actually pretty clear—they’re here, they’ve always been here, there’s plenty, and one day there’s not. The difference is, we should have the wisdom of experience at this point to see the writing on the wall, and change our behaviors. I was devastated the other day to see a popular local chef talk about how much he’d like to get some Bluefin tuna in the house. To me, at this point, that's like saying you’d like to serve wild tigers or rhinos. It’s just unconscionable.
But you can’t just walk away and not eat fish, because that will essentially leave the entire playing field to bad actors. What the fish need, what we all need are powerful, ethical, moneyed players with weight to throw around to change the world. In the Twin Cities, we can help create that powerful, ethical moneyed power every time we go out to eat. And we can do it deliciously! The Fish Smart program at the Minnesota Zoo is a wonderful thing, it helps restaurants make good choices, and helps consumers find the restaurants that are committed to making those good choices. Use the partners list for the best Twin Cities sustainable fish spots.
But, from within that list, I do have favorites! My top five, as follows, and why:
1) Sea Change
Chef Jamie Malone just made Food & Wine Magazine’s list of the 10 best new chefs in the country. She can cook; her style is delicate, and she uses a whole range of herbal and mineral accents that exquisitely show up seafood. Her brilliant pastry chef, Niki Francioli, made our list of the top pastry stars in town, she’s creative and amazing as well. It’s a fantastic restaurant—and entirely committed to a thoughtful and responsible presentation of the ocean’s bounty. If you want to splurge, this is an absolutely ethical splurge. 806 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-225-6499, seachangempls.com
Sushi, unfortunately, is responsible for many of the ocean’s worst troubles, like the Bluefin tuna disaster, and like the fact that unagi stocks are 5 percent of what they were in the '60s. But, are there sustainable, good sushi actors? Heck yes! Masu makes sushi that's both delicious and sustainable—and they do it at both the Mall of America and the flagship Northeast location. The restaurant also has great ramen and good service. It’s my top pick for sushi in the Twin Cities today, period. 330 Hennepin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-332-6278; Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-896-6278, masusushiandrobata.com
3). Smack Shack
I’m loving Smack Shack—the lobster rolls make this brand new North Loop Minneapolis spot ready to join places such as Broder’s Pasta Bar and Black Sheep Pizza in the hall of fame of places that do one great thing absolutely perfectly. And the way that lobster fishing is done today is good, big, and important news. The whole story is in the May issue of Mpls.St.Paul,but for your grab-and-go pleasure, just know that you have an absolute green light to eat lobster. 603 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-259-7288, smack-shack.com
4) Meritage Oysters are one of life’s most sensual pleasures, and farmed oysters, which is nearly every one at this point, clean the water of plankton fueled by fertilizer use on land, and put moneyed watchdogs, that is, oyster farmers, out on the water every day. Buy an oyster and you are essentially funding a private Coast Guard. And oysters are delicious, especially at Meritage, that little bit of Paris in downtown St. Paul, where the bread is springy, the butter sweet and cold, the wine list world class, and the oyster bar rival to none. 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-222-5670, meritage-stpaul.com
5) The Oceanaire I love that The Oceanaire has tweaked its menu to offer nothing but sustainable choices—so now you can get your expense account oysters and crab, and feel good about it too. Oh, and if you haven’t looked at The Oceanaire’s happy hour menu lately, take a gander, it’s got some of the best bargains downtown, the $5 fish and chips is fantastic, the $6 oysters defies all known rules of restaurant pricing. 50 S. 6th St., Mpls., 612-333-2277, theoceanaire.com
"After the Oceans" by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, May 2013
So get on out there and eat! I will say that when I was writing my fish story for the magazine, I started to get incredibly depressed—people can really make a mess sometimes. But we can also fix a mess, and every dollar we spend on dinner is what can do it.