Thursday, November 16, 2006

Shopping for Fish in Washington,DC

Any afficionodo of Unique Culinary Adventures knows our propensity for purchasing finfish of clear bright-eyed freshness. When fillets are on display, who’s to say they weren’t cut from the corpse of a long expired fish with gills turned mushy and eyes if not milky, perhaps even hollow and dried out.

On a recent beautiful late Indian Summer Friday, I visited several highly regarded Washington, DC, markets to assess fish freshness in the Nations Capital. Friday, of course is almost always best day of the week for purchasing fresh fish. My destinations were Eastern Market in Capitol Hill, the Maine Avenue complex of fishmongers along the Potomac, and Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown.

Southern Maryland Seafood Company at the Eastern Market is to be commended for favoring mostly whole fish over fillets. Some, certainly the flounder and rockfish, were fresh enough to meet our stringent standards. Others species fell short, though they were fresher than one has reason to expect of fillets cut from fish unseen.

I’d visited the fish markets along Maine Avenue in the past, though never on a Friday. The Maine Avenue Wharf, though far from touristy, is kind of like Washington DC’s "Fisherman’s Wharf." It’s a configuration that suggests fresh off the boat. The Maine Avenue Wharf has received avid press, even from National Geographic.

At the Maine Avenue Wharf, you see what you’re getting, but once again most varieties of finfish appeared to have been dead longer than we would have liked. My attention was more drawn to shellfish, particularly all the Eastern Blue Crabs that were live and kicking, waiting to be steamed. A lot of people don’t realize our local Eastern Blue Crabs are at their best through October and into November. I liked that a couple of dealers were selling whelks, both in and out of their shells. Whelks, which are harvested from Atlantic waters as far north as Maine, are often referred to and sometimes even labeled legally as "conchs." However, unbeknownst to many, whelk and conch are not even from the same family of mollusk. For true conch, think Caribbean; think a more neutral flavor profile. Oysters were available, but not in variety like at an oyster bar. Clams were plentiful, and with hindsight, I’d have picked up a dozen or so black clams from Jessie’s Seafood. Trying them would have been a first for me.

Especially on a day this beautiful, the Maine Avenue Wharf is a great place for ordering a seafood lunch to enjoy out of doors at a long counter alongside the Potomac. Enough other people had the same idea that my choice was either to wait in line or risk rush hour traffic if I was to make it to Georgetown and Dean & DeLuca.

Better had I waited. After eying the wonderful displays of caviar and pickled fish at Dean & DeLuca, my expectations couldn’t have been higher as continued past them to the small fish stall toward the rear. A few oysters and several fish were about all that was there. I don’t even recall what the species of fish were. All I remember were the dried out sockets that once held eyes. No fillets here, but Dean & DeLuca should have know better than to display these.