Halibut is one of my favorite seafood's to eat, and cook. Unlike some of the heavier and darker meat fish the taste of halibut is very clean, light, and versatile. It will pair well with almost any starch, and i think it is fantastic over a simple salad. Fish such as salmon with a higher fat content are easier to cook, the fat or moisture the fish retains even after it has been exposed to heat helps the end product to not be dried out, even when it is over cooked. Halibut on the flip side contains very little fat from the beginning, so it is harder to cook correctly. Opinions vary on all of this, and the thought occurs to me that i could justify a fish restaurant that took temperatures from customers much like they were ordering steak. In an attempt to get all of the fish we sell at the restaurant to be cooked medium rare-medium a few years back we told our cooks that if it wasn't coming back from the dining room then it was overcooked. It worked pretty well.
Halibut season opened in Alaska last Saturday, and as I am typing the first boats hopefully should be headed back to ports of that state with full hulls. Tsunami warnings, high winds, high seas, and overall crappy fishing conditions seem to always cloud the opening of any commercial fishing season during the winter months. While halibut can be found off of the Oregon and Washington coasts as well as some of the North Eastern Atlantic coasts all of the halibut I buy for the restaurant comes from Alaska. We have tasted it locally and a higher water temperature leads to a much more murky or muddy taste in the final product. Halibut do best in the bitter cold water of the North Pacific Ocean.
These fish can be huge, and are among the flounder family. They are born with an eye on each side but like most flounders once they reach about 6 months of age the eye actually begins to move to the other side of the head, eventually making both eyes on the top, and none on the bottom. The bottom side of them is a very light skin, while the top is dark brown with spots to blend in from predators while they are on the ocean floor. Sizing varies but reports of halibut in the 700# range are not unheard of. I like a 20-30# fish for restaurant use. At your local monger they will most likely be sold as what is called a fletch. 1-3 fletch is 1-3#'s, 3-5, and 5-7 are the norm. As the halibut is a bottom fish, and generally tends to eat mostly garbage I think the smaller the better. Usually 1-3 fletch, or even 3-5 fletch is perfect for my needs. Also as it lingers in the bottom, and doesn't swim real fast or often it is very prone to having worms. These little red worms seem to be a much bigger issue with the bigger or older fish, so as with everything you buy- if you are going halibut shopping buy it from a reputable source, and buy it as fresh as possible and use it that night or the next.
While I did say I love eating and cooking it, I haven't had a piece in over a year. Fishery quotas have dropped on an average of 20% annually for the last 3 years. Prices have soared, and while I will buy halibut fresh for this weekend it will come in at over $18/#. Easily a 40% increase in the last 2 years. Since I feature it on my menu year round I am forced to use a frozen product through the fishery closed winter months, and have had been able to buy what is called a refresh product. A whole fish that is frozen and then slow thawed, then we receive it and slack it out. Rather then buying it in fletch form that was cut by someone who didn't care, then bagged, and frozen and thrown around in a brown box for a few months before it got to me. Even the refresh product I have been buying all winter long has been near $15/#.
Things like this worry me. When we see quotas plummet, it usually means there are less mature fish that are available to catch, which in turn drives the price sky high. Add to that it is an expensive fish to catch- the boats are big, and head far off shore (have you noticed the price of diesel) and you have a perfect storm. It is becoming very unstable, and unsustainable. In November we pushed very hard to get it off of my menu all together with our owners and they didn't bite. It is a very popular item on both my dinner and lunch menus, so I do understand, but as a chef I always feel like it is partly my responsibility to warn others of issues like this. The seafood I promote and buy on a daily basis is as sustainable as I can buy, cause I cant go home being part of the bad guys here. I would rather not eat halibut ever again, so that my grandchildren are able to eat it someday. All of those decisions hang over our heads daily, and we don't take them lightly. So while it is a favorite for many, the price will continue to climb until we as consumers say "no thanks". For now, I will continue to sell it, and will be successful at selling it, but I have to price it accordingly. When you come see me for lunch and want fish and chips it will cost you $20, but believe me I am not trying to stick it to you, I am giving you the nicest halibut I can buy, and I paid for it accordingly. As consumers we are in charge of protecting ourselves against these issues. The people that fish and sell this fish for profit are not going to tell us that we are quickly driving it to extinction.
While I totally understand that these issues are the last thing you want to think about while sitting down to a nice evening out, they cant be ignored forever, and it is precisely that point at which I feel like you have to make those decisions. It is a vicious cycle that encompasses so much more than just halibut. I need to sell it because my customers will pay for it, and want it. Those same customers think it must be a good choice because it is on my menu. At a restaurant of my size pulling all the halibut off of the menu would cause an uproar, it just isn't an option until less people aren't buying it. There are some great options for education out there, but there are some really bad ones as well, so go forth and search. Look at menus, and ask questions. I gladly walk in to the dining room during service to discuss my purchasing decisions with customers who have questions, or are confused and even the increasing number of customers who think they are better informed than I am when it comes to these issues. All of that being said- halibut is an amazing fish. When cooked correctly its flavor is so subtle and elegant, and unmatched with any other fish I can find locally.