The kitchens at A Voce, an Italian restaurant with two locations in New York City, are not well suited to tasting menus, but when owner Marlon Abela was in town from London and said he wanted fish for lunch, executiveMissy Robins knew he didn’t want merely a grilled piece of halibut. She and chef de cuisine Hillary Sterling ended up doing a 10-course fish tasting menu on the fly.
They enjoyed doing it so much that they wanted to figure out how to pull off such menus on a nightly basis.
They realized that if people had to order the tasting menu in advance, they would know how much to make and their kitchens just might be able to pull it off.
And so the Mare tasting menu was born.
Available nightly through September at the restaurant’s Madison Park location, the menu is developed based on what they can make from local, seasonal seafood, including sea robin, triggerfish and whelks.
Robbins recently discussed her menu with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Tell me about sea robin.
We found it at the Greenmarket, and it’s super ugly. Hillary said she and her sister used to catch them on Long Island. I don’t even know if they ate them; they might have thrown them back. They have this fantastic meaty texture but they’re light and flaky, very similar to frog legs. I batter them in squid ink batter — basic seltzer, cornstarch and enough squid ink to turn it totally black — fry them and serve them with shishito pepper dressed in red wine vinegar and honey. It’s kind of like the best fish and chips you’ve ever had.
That’s the only way we’ve made them so far, but I think they’d be really, really good grilled.
What other fish are you working with?
We’ve been using bluefish, which I haven’t used in, like, 15 years. We’ve been using it like we use sardines, curing it in salt. And we’re using triggerfish, which has the same texture and fillet size as John Dory. We poach it in olive oil. It might be my new favorite dish.
Why poach it in olive oil?
The olive oil imparts flavor while cooking the fish really delicately. We serve the triggerfish with tomatoes and sesame, and there’s a lot of flavor in those, and I thought the delicate cooking in olive oil went with that.
We’ve also been using whelks, which we sort of treat like conch. We braise them with tomato and fennel for a really long time — last time they took six to eight hours. I do a pasta with them.
We also found tunny at the market. It’s like a cross between mackerel and tuna, but it’s small. The ones we were buying were like between two and four pounds, and when you break down the fillets it’s like a little tuna loin.
We’ve been making a conserva out of it. We infuse olive oil with garlic, citrus and herbs, bring it up to medium heat and pour it over the tunny. That slowly cooks it, and we keep it stored in olive oil. We serve it with Calabrian chiles, eggplant, raisins and mint.
We’ve also been using sea trout, which we’ve been smoking.
Is sea trout like salmon?
I thought it would be, but it’s actually more like a yellowish, whitish flesh, and it’s super soft. We played with it a lot of ways because it was kind of falling apart. But I found out that cutting it in smaller portions worked better because it cooks faster. The flesh is super sweet, but the texture’s not what I expected.
We cured it and then smoked it and served it with goat yogurt, cucumbers and coriander.
Have you gotten much push back from your customers by offering unusual seafood?
All of the fish is part of our tasting menu and they all have to be ordered in advance, so they know what they’re signing up for, and people have been really, really into it. When we’ve had some extra ones we sold them as specials, and the triggerfish sold really, really well. The tunny sold pretty well. But I don’t know how they’d do as regular menu items.
Is there a conservationist message in your dinners, teaching people about new seafood so they don’t eat the same ones all the time?
I guess. That wasn’t really our intention. It just kind of evolved from doing lunch for the owner. It was really about us cooking new and different and fun stuff, challenging us to do something new and giving our customers something new. Most of it’s coming from Long Island and you don’t see it all year-round.
Do you have other tasting menus in the works?
We’re starting a tasting menu with chickens up at Columbus [in the Time Warner Center]. And when the fish menu ends we’re going into truffle tasting menus. We’re trying to incorporate this idea of doing special menus that people have to order in advance.