What’s a Spring Fish Doing on a Fall Menu?

halibut2The fall menu at Circa 1886 is crammed with dishes that most diners would immediately recognize as autumnal – the entrée list includes duck breast with a mustard demi-glace, pork chop with Brussels sprouts and quail accompanied by rabbit sausage and pumpkin gnocchi – but the outlier of the bunch is halibut, which is generally recognized as a harbinger of spring.

In the Pacific Northwest, which this year has harvested nearly 19 million pounds of halibut, the opening of the commercial season is greeted with the same relief many Southerners feel when the first ramps blossom. Although the season runs for nine months, fishermen pining for a paycheck can catch 10-20 percent of the annual allowable catch in the season’s first few weeks.

This year, halibut season opened on Mar. 23; it closes on Nov. 7.

“We can get by for a month or so,” says Circa 1886 executive chef Marc Collins of sourcing plans.

Still, the cognitive dissonance of seeing halibut dressed in fall colors points up one of the problems posed by the near-universal embrace of the seasonal eating mantra: Confining one’s diet to what’s being harvested right now isn’t always the most sustainable choice. As Collins says, “when you look at history, you had to preserve everything,” meaning eaters traditionally ended up putting less pressure on natural resources by eating pickled tomatoes in November and canned salmon in January.

By that measure, halibut makes good sense in September. Collins concedes late-season halibut is frequently frozen before it reaches the restaurant, often while still at sea, but he doesn’t think the processing adversely affects the product’s quality. That’s important, because it’s not just fish from far-off Alaska that’s frozen and defrosted prior to sale: Collins says he’s dealt with local bass which have also undergone freezing.

“It presents a problem with thinner fish,” he says. “But we like to have a thin fish and a steakier fish on the menu.”

The thinner fish on fall’s menu is snapper, served with kale chips and shallot jam. Collins adds he’s looking forward to the whole of the fall menu, which doesn’t feature any carryovers from the previous menu: Other than the requisite foie gras and soufflé preparations, each Circa 1886 menu is developed from the ground up. “They’re all like little kids to me,” Collins says of the dishes on the new menu.

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