Beyond salmon or served with chips, local restaurants offer fish in unique dishes: Andrew Coppolino

When people think of fish dishes at restaurants, fish and chips or salmon may come to mind. But food columnist Andrew Coppolino says some chefs in Waterloo region and Guelph are offering up fish in different and tasty ways.

'Fish isn't a niche for all restaurants,' says Jeff Tailby of T & J Seafoods

Jeritt Raney is the executive chef at Proof Kitchen and Lounge in Waterloo. He says he'd love to see more fish on local restaurant menus. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

When it comes to ordering fish during a dinner out, many people likely think of one of two dishes: salmon or fish and chips.

But as Canadians' access to fish products has increased in the past few yearsconsumption has also increased.

People see it as a sustainable food option that is high in protein, low in fat and an alternative to red meats, says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and director of the school's Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

And, he says, people have embraced making the protein at home in their own kitchens.

"Ontarians have somewhat fallen in love again with fish and seafood cooked at home. It is yet another sign consumers are getting more adventurous," Charlebois said.

When fish is on local restaurants menus, consumers are buying it.

Bhima's Warung in Waterloo has a relatively large selection of fish and seafood on the menu, according to chef and owner Paul Boehmer.

"We have always sold a lot of fish and seafood," he said. "Our menus have always been heavy on that side." 

The Walper Hotel's TWH Social prepares crispy trout with gnocchi, sorrel, yeast butter and grilled lemon that is something of an anomaly as a sales leader.

"It's Cole Munro trout, and it's currently our best selling entrée. That is interesting given that it is usually a beef dish that's the bestseller," said Nicole Hunt, executive chef at the Walper. Cole Munro is a rainbow trout producer near St. Thomas, Ont.

Though it has spent six decades as the premier steakhouse in the region, Kitchener's Charcoal Steak House has 11 fish and seafood dishes, but that high number if fish dishes is a rarity.

Increase in demand

A popular fishmonger based in Kitchener, T&J Seafoods, has been supplying fish to the region since 1967. Owner Jeff Tailby says he's seeing increased demand for fish generally during the pandemic.

"People may have learned to cook at home, but they are now wanting that dine-in atmosphere at restaurants. We're picking up sales from restaurants," said Tailby. 

Caudle's Catch owner Ron Caudle says he's seeing seafood gaining more sophistication on many restaurant menus.

"Fish as a restaurant menu item is growing slowly and it's building away from salmon, which is seen as a 'safe' menu dish for many chefs," Caudle said.

There's a wide selection at the T & J Seafoods fish counter. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Fish sparse, more expensive

Chefs usually only include one or perhaps two pan-seared, grilled or oven-roasted fish on their menus, including a lot of salmon, but wish they could add more.

Jeritt Raney, executive chef at Proof Kitchen and Lounge in Waterloo, says that fish on his menu is an item customers choose as something lighter to eat.

"I would love to see more fish on the menu, but it is harder in landlocked communities because quantity is sparse and a bit more expensive to get here," he said.

Raney and his family were part of the fishing community in Tobermory, so fish has always been a key part of his background as a cook.

"There's real value in fish. And it's healthy," he added.

The rainbow trout at Trio Restaurant in Waterloo is grilled over Japanese charcoal and served with celery root purée, fennel, citrus juice, spices and watercress. (Mike Pinke/Trio Restaurant)

At Trio in uptown Waterloo, chef Kyle Rennie adds time and value to his Ontario-sourced trout dish.

"The fish is Cole Munro rainbow trout who provide about 80 per cent of the rainbow in Ontario. We scale it and dry out the skin for a day or two to help it crisp up when cooking it. It's grilled over Japanese charcoal and served with celery root purée, fennel, citrus juice, spices and watercress," Rennie said.

If there is a less familiar fish presentation, it can be found at Sugo on Surrey, an Italian and Mediterranean-inspired Guelph restaurant.

"The branzino has a wow factor," according to Sugo owner Alex Tami. Branzino is a mild, white fish.

"It's seared quickly, finished in the oven and served head-on and bones-in. It's a different fish than you'll find elsewhere in the city, though it does catch some people by surprise," Tami said.

La Cucina in Kitchener has a pescato del giorno, which is a pan-seared and oven roasted piece of cod or sea bass, simply and healthily prepared.

Sustainability important

The exceptions prove the rule: other than fish and chips, fish dishes on restaurant menus are somewhat limited. Seen as a "premium-priced" entree, fish is often unfamiliar to restaurant customers and is perceived as a dish whose "local" sourcing is limited.

However, fish dishes that are gaining recognition from chefs are those products designated sustainable through Oceanwise, a conservation organization that focuses on protecting and resorting the oceans.

"That's important to us," Raney said. "It's our duty as chefs to make sure we [are] sustainable and ensuring that fish is going to be around for our grandchildren. More people are educated and expect this."

Jeff Tailby, owner of T & J Seafoods in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The statistics indicate that there is opportunity for consumers to consider fish as a protein when they dine out, and chefs and suppliers generally would like to see interest grow further and add more menu items. Tailby at T&J Seafoods says that's his mission. 

"Part of my job in this business is to talk to restaurants that are doing fish and chips and say that we've got this amazing product and can we try it in your restaurant," Tailby said, adding that about one-quarter of their sales are to restaurants. 

"Fish isn't a niche for all restaurants, but there's a huge potential out there for seafood that I think some restaurants aren't taking advantage of."


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.


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