Wahoo in Walleye Land

Coastal Seafoods
2330 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls.; 724-7425
74 Snelling Ave. S., St. Paul; 698-4888

The paddlefish in the Coastal Seafoods case looks like a dinosaur: the foot-long spatulalike bill of a platypus, the giant hinge of a mouth reminiscent of a pelican's beak, mottled gray-and-pink skin like a shark's. Yesterday this paddlefish was swimming in a river in Arkansas when it was unlucky enough to stumble into a fisherman's net. That fisherman called a fisher-friend in Florida, who called Brian Nelson, Coastal's sales coordinator, and asked him if he'd be interested in one very bizarre-looking fish. Absolutely, said Nelson. He didn't know too much about paddlefish, but he knew that even if he couldn't sell the creature in Coastal's retail store, his co-workers would be as excited to see it as he was.

Nelson then continued with his regular duties, talking to fishermen around the globe, fishermen from Massachusetts, Alaska, Hawaii, Chile, Spain, Mexico, New Zealand--anywhere, in short, that there's a contact and an airport. A man in Maine who suits up in full scuba gear and dives for scallops along the rocky coast told Nelson the next day's weather looked good: Expect a shipment of these hand-harvested shellfish. By the time Nelson finished talking to his various connections, it was clear that in addition to the run-of-the-mill consignments of salmon, tuna, snapper, grouper, catfish, trout, mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp, et cetera, Coastal would be receiving shipments of sushi-grade yellowtail, whole Portuguese sardines, mahimahi, and those coveted diver scallops. Next, Nelson got on the phone to alert chefs all over town--Cafe Brenda, Table of Contents, the Harbor View Cafe, Pronto Ristorante, Lucia's, Auriga, D'Amico Cucina, café un deux trois, Cafe 128, the New French Cafe, the St. Paul Hotel--all of whom (and then some) get at least some of their seafood from Coastal.

A Coastal staffer told me that regular customers coming back from seaside vacations are always saying the fish they ate while they were away wasn't nearly as good as what they get at home from Coastal, and it's not hard to see why. Exploiting the wonders of modern air delivery, Suzanne Weinstein founded the company in 1981 with nothing more than a battered van, a single shipment of tilefish, and a rented spot in a cooler. Since then the quiet, matter-of-fact Weinstein has transformed the world of seafood in the Twin Cities. Still, she is modest about her role in the company, and credits all her success to others--to Brian Nelson and his well-cultivated relationships with local chefs; to Tim Lauer, Coastal's general manager, who oversees ordering and manages the two Coastal retail stores; and especially to the staff behind the counter, who are fonts of friendly advice. Recent visits to the St. Paul and Minneapolis locations yielded staffers who knew how many pounds of chopped clams it would take to make a good-size pot of chowder, who were never too busy to explain where fish were from and how fresh they were, and who could suggest cooking methods and side dishes. In addition to the main ingredient, Coastal now stocks dozens of marinades, sauces, and seasonings, as well as pastas, seasoned or plain rices, and bread from the New French Bakery.

"The myth has been that Minnesota doesn't get fresh seafood," says Philip Dorwart, chef at the Minneapolis Table of Contents. "People think it comes off a truck that's been parked out in back of the Tom Thumb for a couple of days or something. The truth is that a lot of the fish we get is only 24 or 48 hours old. A lot of it is still coming through rigor mortis, and you can't even eat it until it does." His relationship with Coastal, Dorwart adds, allows him to serve more adventurous dishes. "Brian knows my taste and will bring in things especially for me that he knows I love, like wahoo or cobia," says the chef. "The beautiful thing about Minneapolis diners is they've gotten more and more adventurous. Three years ago if we tried to serve outside of the holy trinity--tuna, salmon, or halibut--people wouldn't try it, but now they trust us and are willing to try some comparatively exotic things." He cites as an example a recent dish of the diver-harvested scallops from Maine, which he served with black truffles and a sauce made from Coastal-supplied, sushi-quality live sea urchins blanched and blended with rice-wine vinegar. And by the way, Dorwart asks: Did you see that paddlefish?

When I called Doug Flicker, a chef at Auriga, to see what they've had on their menu of late courtesy of Coastal, he invited me to drop by to taste the fresh Portuguese sardines he was roasting to serve that evening. These sardines--6 inches long, an inch and a half wide, bright silver with liquid eyes--had come in whole that morning. Flicker had filleted and grilled them, and was marinating the surprisingly large and meaty fish in olive oil, oregano, bay leaves, and black peppercorns to serve over pasta that night. The flavor was astonishing, deeply flavorful, texturally creamy, and subtly smelling of the sea. While I was marveling over the sardine, Flicker cut a small corner off a marinating giant California octopus mantle (also from Coastal), and threw that on the grill. It cooked up exquisitely, with a delicate smoky taste and a meltingly tender texture. We got to talking about fish in the Twin Cities, and after a few horror stories about seafood shipments getting bumped for other packages' priority around the Christmas holidays and Valentine's Day, the conversation turned, inevitably, to paddlefish.

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