A tidy white boathouse is set back from the shore of Little Bay's dark blue waters in Rockport. Seagulls cry overhead and brightly colored signal flags flap loudly in the wind. It's a sunny day in this tiny resort town, just north of Corpus Christi, and GLOW is open for business.
Inside the boathouse, owner Karey Johnson has whitewashed the walls and created three separate areas in the small space: a cozy, wood-toned bar area featuring handmade cocktails; a miniscule kitchen, the activities in which are easily visible through a large window; and a dining room with tall ceilings and mustard-toned leather booths among mismatched chairs. Sunlight fills the entire space.
The menu at GLOW features Jim Naismith's red snapper among its short list of dishes. Johnson is an advocate of using as many local products as possible in her restaurant, which has a modern French edge to it. I sip a jalapeño-laden cocktail and wait for my lunch to arrive: grilled red snapper over a large market salad.
I'm eager to taste the fruits of the labor I witnessed aboard the La Victoria only the day before, to see if Naismith's fish really does taste better...or even just different.
The fish is amazing. Helped along by a pitch-perfect grilling and the scantest amount of salt and black pepper, it is impossibly juicy, fat and tender.
The snapper didn't require any overcooking because the quality lent itself to a shorter cook time, and the ike jime process all but demands it. After all, there's no point to ike jime'ing fish if you aren't going to serve it rare or at least medium-rare.
To cook sashimi-grade fish to a well-done temperature would be the equivalent of grinding Kobe beef into burgers: People do it, but foolishly so. Kobe beef's entire point becomes moot when that prized fat marbling is ground into oblivion. Ditto sashimi-grade fish: The entire point is to use it as close to rare as possible, meaning that it's not necessary or even desired to ike jime Gulf fish that you're just going to fry or otherwise cook through.
It's exactly this point that makes sashimi-grade fish a tough sell in Texas. Although there are thousands of sushi restaurants (nearly 250 in Houston alone) and many more places serving ceviches, kinilaws and crudos, they're comparatively few and far on a large scale. There are far more places grilling and frying fish in Texas than serving sushi.
And of those restaurants that do desire and purchase sashimi-grade fish, they're doing it from large companies like True World and Kazy, which purchase the fish in bulk and are able to sell it at a much lower cost than Jim Naismith is able to do. Whole red snapper at Kazy sells for $8.50 a pound. Naismith currently charges $8 a pound for the snapper, cleaned and gutted, $7 a pound for other species, but admits that his prices are artificially depressed while he attempts to establish his business. He's losing money, but that doesn't matter to him right now.
He sees a future based on a trio of buzzwords, his competitive edge over the Kazys of the world: local, artisanal and sustainable. Words that are becoming increasingly vital for a certain brand of restaurant with passionately devoted chefs, those like Haven, t'afia and Sorrel Urban Bistro. Naismith's practices incorporate all three buzzwords -- they walk the walk, so to speak -- and that cachet alone is worth the extra cost of his fish.
"Part of the roadblock right now," Naismith said, "is there's no room for a middleman. The volumes are too small and the guys in distribution don't want the fishermen selling to the chefs."
"If I want to sell to the existing chain, they're very happy to buy them from me at a very low price," he finished. But this isn't preferable, because, he says, "Now we're back in the same circle. I want to deal in low quantities, high quality, and work directly with the chefs -- chefs that really care."
Naismith hopes to expand outside of Corpus Christi to find those chefs here in Houston. He's already been contacted by Randy Rucker, who happened to see a photo of one of Naismith's red snappers on Facebook. Rucker, who's opening his newest restaurant -- conāt -- this winter, is famous for his work with local foods and purveyors, and the two seem to be a natural match.
And so, despite its many uphill battles, it may not be long before sashimi-grade Gulf fish hits Houston once again: Rucker and Naismith are meeting next week.
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