HALIBUT cheeks and short ribs. Scallops and foie gras. Squid and pig’s ears. Lobster and squab. Recognize the theme? It’s surf and turf.
For the guy shuffling chips at a Vegas craps table, hoping for a hot roller -- or at least a meal comped by the pit boss -- surf and turf means a thick steak and a fat lobster tail. But chefs are navigating uncharted waters and ranging beyond the plains to create new takes on the steakhouse standby.
Their sometimes wild iterations continue to evolve and proliferate despite the fact that some food lovers think the classic American pairing is based on an uneasy marriage of meat and fish. And whether inspired by the land-sea combinations of international cuisines or maybe just the American dream of having it all, especially on one plate, today’s surf-and-turf combinations are more varied than the possible rolls on a pair of six-sided dice.
“So many meats go really well with seafood because they’ll add richness or fat that a lot of seafood doesn’t have,” says Water Grill executive chef David Lefevre. “With a flounder or a sole or a John Dory or a flakier, whiter-fleshed seafood, a rich piece of meat contrasts with the lean fish and adds a new dimension of flavor.”
On the other hand, Sona executive chef David Myers combines big-eye tuna with veal tongue because of what he sees as similarities. The tuna is seared rare and the tongue is braised, then crisped in a pan. “I like the depth of flavors, the meaty richness of a specialty meat with the rawness and meatiness of the tuna.... It’s a combination that works as a red-wine-oriented dish,” Myers says.
What’s the obsession behind the compulsion to unite land and sea on the plate? “I think people will always gravitate toward surf and turf because we’ve all been raised with it. I remember it from my parents,” says David Lentz, chef at the Hungry Cat, who has offered as a special a “mainstream surf and turf”: grilled rib-eye and butter-poached lobster with a bearnaise sauce. It’s the bearnaise sauce that helps pull it all together, Lentz says, because “you can use it either with the lobster on its own or the steak on its own.”
Lentz also has experimented with pairings such as monkfish with beef cheeks. “It’s through trial and error that we’ve come up with these combinations,” he says.
WHAT’S nostalgia for some may be culinary cliche for others. “I hate steak and lobster. It’s so 1976. People have got to get past the whole steak and lobster thing,” says Michael Bryant, chef at Norman’s in West Hollywood. “When it comes to surf and turf, try something new.”
Bryant definitely is. He’s dishing out chocolate-glazed short ribs with parsnip puree paired with halibut cheeks over bacon-braised cabbage.
Sound like a bit much? But then, surf and turf was born of excess. Steakhouses of the ‘60s and ‘70s may have given rise to the term surf and turf -- one of the earliest published references is said to be a 1967 advertisement in the Yellow Pages for a steakhouse in New York -- but the American steak-and-lobster tradition extends back further. The late 19th century gave rise to New York’s lobster palaces, restaurants that served seafood to the newly wealthy of the Gilded Age. One rich railroad salesman in particular, of significant globosity, liked to eat his steaks with his oysters with his ducks with his lobsters.
In 1940s New York, the Palm, an Italian-restaurant-turned-steakhouse, added 2-pound lobsters to its menu. The bigger the lobsters, the more popular the dish: When, in the ‘70s, the restaurant introduced 4- to-8-pound lobsters, sales jumped from 100 pounds to 25,000 pounds a week.
But there are other reasons surf-and-turf combinations are showing up on contemporary menus. The influence of cuisines that have a long tradition of combining seafood and meat, such as Spanish or Cantonese, and an ever expanding repertoire of specialty ingredients -- Japanese sword squid, veal tongue, baby cuttlefish -- are spurring exuberant experiments.
Lentz’s squid stuffed with chorizo and a clam-and-chorizo dish owes a culinary debt to the Portuguese way with seafood, which often involves pork, as in clams cataplana, a stew of clams and pork sausage. Versions of clams cataplana have been showing up all over Los Angeles such as at the new wine bar Bin 8945 (actually, it’s a sort of mussels cataplana there), and you can even find the Italian classic vitello tonnato, veal with tuna, at new restaurant Bridge.
The Spanish version of surf and turf, the lyrically named mar i muntanya, or sea and mountain, refers to the foothills of the Pyrenees that extend to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the underlying principle of Catalan dishes such as chicken with lobsters or rabbit with langoustines.
“It’s very Asian to mix meat and fish together,” David Burke of davidburke & donatella in New York, says of his roasted California duck with seared prawns, inspired by such traditional combinations as the Cantonese dishes that bring together crab and pork or prawns and chicken liver. Burke’s also a fan of mixing up other kinds of meat and seafood. He cites the East Coast classic shad roe and bacon, as well as such recent innovations as pork and scallops or tuna and foie gras. “Sweet scallops with a rich oxtail stew is a beautiful combination,” Burke says.
Comparisons in texture and flavor are important jumping off points for chefs’ creations. At Providence in Hollywood, executive chef Michael Cimarusti pairs scallops with beef marrow, tuna with duck confit, and yari ika -- Japanese sword squid -- with pig’s ear. “The texture of the pig’s ear is similar to the squid. It has a snap.... The squid has a very clean, nutty, sea-fresh flavor, and the pig’s ear is rich and meaty.” And in a nod to Spanish cuisine, the dish is flavored with smoked paprika and marcona almonds.
“It’s a question of balance. You wouldn’t want one element to trump the other,” he says. Cimarusti says he loves working with sweetbreads. “Their rich unctuousness goes great with shellfish or with white-fleshed fish.”
SQUID or cuttlefish is an especially popular seafood to combine with meat because its mild flavor and leanness make it a veritable blank canvas. At Josie in Santa Monica, Josie LeBalch has combined sepia, or baby cuttlefish, with pounded seared pheasant. She also serves seared sepia with merguez sausage and lentils. The sepia is skewered and served on top of the spicy merguez and lentils.
“It’s the lentils that are the conduit there. They go so well with both the sepia and the sausage,” LeBalch says.
LeBalch’s dish is only incidentally surf and turf, but other chefs are running with the original concept and repackaging it, with mixed results. At Republic, a surf-and-turf tartare is both beef fillet (with capers, olives, shallots and quail egg) and big-eye tuna (with mango, avocado, caviar and ponzu). Simon L.A., which opened a few weeks ago, is serving surf-and-turf tacos -- two beef tacos and two lobster tacos are alternately skewered together.
A lobster-stuffed burger is on the planned menu for Sunset Beach, which is set to open this summer. Chef Joseph Gillard says he spreads out a pound of ground Kobe-style beef, puts poached Maine lobster in the center along with some lobster bisque, folds it all back up carefully into a patty, pan-roasts it and then serves it open-face on toasted brioche. “It’s very rich,” Gillard deadpans.
He might pull it off.
But “there are an endless amount [of combinations] that don’t work together,” says Michael Mina, the chef behind Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point, Michael Mina in San Francisco and Sea Blue in Las Vegas, among others. “You really have to consider what type of fish you’re using and you have to pick exactly the right flavors and the right cooking methods. I’m a fan of fish and foie gras.”
Another of Mina’s favorite combinations is a crispy-skin black bass with big pieces of pork belly and deep spices such as paprika and curry. “Black bass is great because of the crispy skin. It’s one fish where people will eat the skin. It’s important that the bass is sauteed on that dish so that you get the contrast” of crisp and tender. The pork belly is cooked slowly and then crisped so that there’s a mirroring of the contrasting textures.
But Mina says he still moves a lot of steak and lobster in Las Vegas. “It’s what people want,” he says.
For some, its bedrock popularity in casino centers make classic surf and turf a sure bet. Says chef Bobby Flay, whose Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa in Atlantic City opened this month, “We decided to make a steakhouse but to do lobster in a big way,” Flay says. “I wanted to see steak and lobster at every table at some level.
“What’s better than winning a few bucks at the craps table and then going to spend it on surf and turf?”