Michael Cimarusti is a big guy, built strong and square like a small-college linebacker. So it’s a little funny to see him so excited that he’s almost hopping up and down. Incongruous, maybe, but perfectly understandable: Cimarusti is chef at Water Grill, one of the best seafood restaurants in the country, and what’s got him so worked up is fish.
Not just any fish, but the early-morning selection at International Marine Products, the wholesaler that supplies top sushi bars and restaurants across Southern California. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sell retail (a nearby competitor, American Fish, offers a similar but smaller selection to the rest of us at Los Angeles Fish Co. market). But walking through this market with someone who knows fish is like taking a master’s seminar in seafood.
How can you tell when a fish is really fresh? What is the difference between yellowfin and yellowtail? And just what the heck do you do with a cuttlefish like the one Cimarusti is holding?
“These are great,” he says, picking up a giant as big as a turkey platter. Its pure white flesh is spattered with its wet black ink. Cimarusti loves cuttlefish for its sweet, sea-mineral flavor and tough-tender texture.
“Last week I got one and cut it into a big rectangle and then sliced the rectangle into three sheets, like laminates, and then cut them into postage stamp-sized pieces. I seared them directly on a hot flattop and sprinkled them with lemon juice and olive oil and a little fleur de sel. It’s so flavorful you don’t need to do too much to it.”
International Marine isn’t the only seafood wholesaler in Southern California, or even the biggest. But it seems to have the most unusual products. And for that reason, it is almost irresistible to chefs.
Cimarusti visits twice a week. Mark Peel and Suzanne Tracht visit weekly, even though their restaurant Jar is a steakhouse. Every Tuesday this summer they’ve had a tasting menu based on what they found that day at the fish market.
One recent menu featured fatty little steaks of wild sockeye salmon served with pickled mushrooms and slivered baby ginger, followed by roasted baby yellowtail the size of small trout, with parsleyed potatoes and a garlicky aioli.
Of course, that menu is arrived at only after careful shopping and several long discussions. The sockeye steaks come from the one perfect whole wild fish they are able to find. “Some of these are farmed,” Peel points out while picking through the various bins holding salmon. “You can tell by looking at the tails; see how ragged they are? They’re held in such close quarters they wear each other down. And look how fat they are. They just sit around and eat all day; they’re like pigs.”
Two wild salmon are passed over because of suspicion they’ve been handled roughly. “Look at the scales,” Peel says. “See those lines? That’s where they struggled against the gill net. The meat will be mushy there.”
Those little yellowtail that Tracht finds so irresistible are one of four sizes of that fish at the market that day. “See, we’ve got the babies, then the kids, then the teenagers and their parents,” says Joji Kusayanagi, a brand manager at IMP who serves as an unofficial seafood guide for many of the chefs.
Yellowtail is not to be confused with yellowfin. The first, called hamachi at sushi bars, is in the jack family, kind of like smaller tunas. Yellowfin, more commonly called by its Hawaiian name ahi, is a true tuna.
“Since these yellowtail are so small, I’d really like to roast these whole,” Peel says.
“Sure, we can do that,” Tracht says, “but you’re going to be the one who’s going to have to peel each one when it comes out of the oven. That skin isn’t good.”
The chefs prowl the market like kids on a treasure hunt, lifting lids to see what’s underneath and digging through the live holding tanks. Peel and Tracht clamber over cartons to get to the top holding tank and squeeze the carapace of every single lobster to find the two with the hardest shells.
“This isn’t a good time for lobster because they’re molting,” Peel explains. “When their shells are soft, there’s not as much meat. But every once in a while you find some that haven’t molted yet.”
There’s sculpin still covered with the thin layer of mucus that protected it in life. “That hasn’t been out of the water more than 12 hours,” Cimarusti says. “You can still see the vitality in the fish.”
A whole box of tai snapper regard you curiously, big clear eyes bulging as if slightly embarrassed to be found in such a situation. “Such cute faces,” Cimarusti says with a laugh.
He picks up an amberjack by the tail. It’s so stiff it stands out like a board in his hand. “This hasn’t even gone through rigor [mortis] yet,” he says. “It hasn’t been out of the water more than a day.”
Cimarusti looks in awe at a tuna, as firm, black and glistening as an overinflated truck tire. “I love that fish, it’s so big and burly,” he says. “Everything about it is so regal. When you catch a tuna, you can just tell; they struggle so hard.”
As he inspects the fish, Cimarusti pats them with a craftsman’s gentle touch, the way a woodworker might stroke a particularly perfect piece of Madagascar ebony.
“When you have stuff like this,” he says, “it’s easy to be creative.”