Robert Gadsby arranges prawns on a minty papaya salad, with a Thai peanut sauce on the side.
Michael Cimarusti serves Dungeness crab with grapefruit sections, diced mango and a grapefruit juice reduction with cumin.
David Myers has layered sea urchin, jellied bouillabaisse and raw prawns marinated in mustard oil and fennel pollen -- in a shot glass.
What’s up here? Who are these guys, and what are they doing? They’re the chefs of Noe, Water Grill and Sona, respectively, and they’re making seafood cocktails.
OK, so these dishes don’t come in the ketchupy, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce Americans know and love. Still, they’re cold seafood in a sauce, and that makes them cocktails in our book -- exotic, artfully presented cocktails.
The seafood cocktail has been part of our way of eating for more than a century now, and something about this iconic appetizer just sets chefs’ creative juices flowing. Chefs around L.A. are taking the cocktail idea in all sorts of directions and coming up with dramatic, memorable first courses.
“We like to blow people away right off the bat,” says David Myers of Sona in West Hollywood. He starts diners out with an array of little amuse bouches, often amounting to deconstructed seafood cocktails.
One of them is “oyster cream,” he says, “pureed oyster thickened with gelatin, like a pudding or a rich, beautiful cream, flavored with lemon grass and coriander. We serve that with a puree of Cavaillon melon and a hazelnut crisp, so you have various layers: sweetness, brininess and luxurious mouth-feel.”
“Shrimp cocktails always remind me of an early experience of going to a restaurant,” recalls Robert Gadsby of Noe Restaurant in the Omni Hotel Los Angeles. “The lady friend I was with said, ‘I’ll order the shrimp cocktail,’ and I said, ‘I’ll have the cured salmon,’ which I’d never had. When the salmon came, I complained that it wasn’t cooked.
“It was kind of embarrassing. When I think of shrimp cocktail, I remember that experience -- so I always jazz it up.” Maybe this is why he features a different seafood cocktail every six weeks.
Certainly, the idea of cold seafood in sauce offers the cook a pretty big blank page to work on. But the traditional American cocktail sauce is still the springboard for many chefs’ creations. With its root of ketchup mixed with other condiments, cocktail sauce is a cousin to other ultra-American sauces like barbecue sauce and even the ketchup-based “French” dressing that is still many a cook’s cherished secret. (Countless Americans concoct their own barbecue sauces, just as restaurant chefs are pushing the limits on seafood cocktails.)
Maybe it’s the ketchup. Maybe something about ketchup inspires the American soul, even if chefs evolve in a ketchupless direction.
At the Water Grill, Michael Cimarusti doesn’t offer a straight seafood cocktail on his menu; that would be a cliche. But he does make a conventional sort of cocktail sauce that’s available on the side with seafood. It’s a particularly pungent one, because he makes up a batch and then adds a bit of fresh horseradish every day -- he compares this to the sugar dosage that is added to Champagne before it’s bottled.
As for that crab-grapefruit-mango dish, Cimarusti says it’s one that worked its way up through the ranks. “It came out of our tasting menus, which change pretty much daily, and found its way onto the regular menu. Originally, I did it on a skewer: mango, grapefruit section, crab. With a tasting menu, I like to get out of the same old knife-fork-spoon presentation, to break the boredom of eating eight or nine things all the same way.
“It all just seemed to work together -- nice grapefruit, beautiful crab. The last element was the cumin. It had needed one more thing.”
She’s mad for mayo
For Allyson Thurber, chef at the Lobster in Santa Monica, it’s mayonnaise rather than ketchup that inspires. Her cocktail of choice is lobster (of course) in a martini glass with a luscious tarragon aioli. “I am a true mayonnaise-oholic,” she says, “and I grew up eating fresh Dungeness crab with lemon, mayo and tarragon. There’s nothing better, in my book.
“Can it really get any better than that? Well, a horseradish-spiced Louis dressing can’t hurt ... it does have a mayo base.”
The seafood cocktail has been an American favorite for 110 years. Many people don’t know it’s a California original.
Apparently, it was first concocted in San Francisco around 1889, when a drunken sailor ordered a bowl of oysters at John Moraghan’s oyster stand in what’s now the city’s financial district. The story goes that he was in too much of a hurry to eat the oysters on the shell, so he asked Moraghan to shuck them for him. Then this nameless sailor created the “cocktail” sauce by grabbing all the condiments on the counter -- vinegar, ketchup, hot sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce -- and pouring them into the bowl together, like a bartender mixing a cocktail.
It was basically just a new way of putting together ingredients that were already at hand. The idea found a ready welcome in Latin America, which was already accustomed to the idea of cold seafood in a tart, spicy sauce because of its long taste for ceviche (raw seafood “cooked” in lime juice) and seafood escabeche (cooked seafood in vinegar). When you see the word “mariscos” painted on a restaurant, you know it will have a menu of cocteles made from squid, shrimp, octopus, crab or oysters. In the Caribbean, they make conch cocktails (coctel de concha or de caracol).
The usual American cocktail sauce is based on thick tomato sauce and/or ketchup dosed with lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and horseradish. Latin American cocteles tend to be similar (most call for “salsa inglesa,” which is Worcestershire sauce), though some contain mayonnaise and/or mustard. The coctel Campechana at La Barca Jalisco in South Gate shows the classic Mexican take on the seafood cocktail: a profusion of seafood -- squid, octopus, abalone and shrimp -- mingled with tomatoes, avocados and a light tomato sauce, slightly sweet and slightly pungent with chiles.
At Cafe Atlantic, Xiomara Ardolina serves a coctel de camaron en salsa criolla. “Nearly every Cuban restaurant has a seafood cocktail,” she says.
Her version is atypical since it contains jalapenos, and Cuban food generally avoids chiles. “Originally, I used habanero chiles with it,” she says, “but they were too hot and not flavorful enough. You know, the habanero is from Havana, but we don’t eat it. We plant it around our houses as a vine to keep out intruders.” The jalapeno is quite hot enough, particularly with a dose of freshly ground horseradish.
So it’s not traditional. None of these recipes is traditional. We say they’re all cocktails, and we say, bottoms up.