The Blue Water Cafe's Unsung Heroes Festival gives you a chance to try sustainable seafood you might not normally eat

As a food writer, I get invited to a lot of dinners and usually have a long line of friends eager to be my +1. Oddly, the Blue Water Café’s Unsung Heroes Festival (which features under-utilized species such as sea snails and jellyfish) generated only a lacklustre level of interest among those friends.

I think it’s odd because: 1. It’s the Blue Water Café. You know if anyone’s going to make sea cucumber taste amazing, it’s them. 2. I love trying new dishes and have come to think of most Vancouverites as having adventurous palates.

So to those of you who are quick to dismiss this menu with a perfunctory, “Not for me!”  I say, “You don’t know what you’re missing!”

This festival has been running for eight years strong. Initially the concept was almost radical as Executive Chef Frank Pabst served up delicacies and unique proteins that were largely unfamiliar to most Vancouverites. But now, this month-long annual festival is highly anticipated by adventurous and well-informed foodies (who I clearly need to befriend) who have come to expect nothing short of transformative culinary mastery of some rather unglamourous and under-appreciated, yet highly sustainable seafood choices.

Chef Pabst’s concept is simple: Avoid species that are over-fished, or fished in ways that damage ocean beds or cause unnecessary by-catch, by introducing diners to new experiences and flavours using species found in abundance.

He makes everything really accessible, taste-wise, so it’s really not that different from your usual seafood flavour profiles. “I want to make this accessible to people,” says Chef Pabst. “It’s not intimidating at all!”

But for those who still need convincing, let me walk you through these sharing plates, which were all – as per usual Blue Water standards – scrumptious and beautiful.

Taramasalata


Herring Roe - Taramasalata dip with herring roe with grilled flat bread and accompanied with citrus marinated olives ($10.50)

This has got to be one of the more approachable and familiar dishes on the Unsung menu. It’s reminiscent of a hummus, but like all taramasalatas, is made with fish roe so it does have a pronounced fishy flavour. It’s quite rich in both texture and taste and benefits greatly from nibbles of the bright, yummy citrus olives. This especially is ideal for sharing.

Periwinkles


Periwinkles - Sea snails poached in a kombu seaweed broth, served chilled in their shells with a nori shoyu vinaigrette. ($9.50)

This was the only protein on the menu I hadn’t tried before so I was excited to taste its briny, slightly clam-my flavour. The periwinkles are served in a small bowl with toothpicks to dig out these tiny treats. A tasty snack, especially with the seaweed soy dipping sauce, but a bit of work. Only about every third or fourth shell yielded a munchable morsel.

The wine I had with the taramasalata and periwinkles was the Venturi Schulze Brut Natural 2008, Brut- Vancouver island.

Red Sea Urchins


Red Sea Urchin - Red sea urchin trifle with layers of avocado cream, nori seaweed nest, yuzu sake purée, Peruvian gooseberries, and ponzu jelly ($12.50)

This could very well be the most creative incorporation of seafood I’ve ever had. On its own, sea urchin is pretty intimidating for such a small morsel. It tastes of the sea with its briny flavour, it has a smooth but also slightly mealy texture, and a consistency that’s both unctuous and foamy.

In this version of uni trifle, it’s all about enhancing the incredibly complex texture and flavour of sea urchin with layers of rich avocado foam, crunchy, crispy shards of seaweed, delicate jewel-like cubes of ponzu jelly and, of course, shimmering, delicious small mounds of the sea urchin itself.

Anchovies


Anchovy - Marinated white anchovies served with pearl barley, cilantro chimichurri parmesan, and romaine lettuce ($9.50)

You’ve never had anchovies like this. These plump, fleshy fish were delicate but also extremely flavourful. The barley added a nice heft and texture to these fillets, while the salad provided a much needed tangy, acidic note that helped offset the richness of the fish.

The wine I had with the sea urchin and anchovy was the St. Hallet Riesling 2009, Eden Valley.

Geoduck


Geoduck - Mirugai sashimi with karashi sumiso ($15.50)

Geoduck is a coveted delicacy in most Asian restaurants, so it was lovely to have it served in its purest form as sashimi. It has a mild, slightly sweet but also briney taste, with a firm, almost crisp texture. Here it was served thinly sliced and dressed in a white miso sauce with a traditional shiso leaf, which you should eat as well. It’s delicious with a mild, floral flavour that accompanies and enhances most sashimi dishes.

Sea Cucumber


Sea Cucumber - Smoked potato and shiitake mushroom chowder with sautéed sea cucumber and grilled scallions ($10.50)

My mother’s sea cucumber dish terrifies me, so I was particularly eager to see what preparation Chef Pabst had for this challenging protein. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the most accessible dish of the evening, with an extremely gentle and familiar flavour profile. The creamy, smoky chowder supported a well-balanced amount of cubed sea cucumber with potatoes and mushrooms. This was delicious and probably the kindest introduction to sea cucumber you will ever have.

With the geoduck and sea cucumber I had the Sake-Masukagami – Special Junmai.

Sardines


Sardine - Pan fried in a blanket and stuffed with a pine nut gremolata, served with broccolini and harissa sauce ($9.50)

Sardines are tricky because they’re intense in flavour, but the gremolata stuffing tempered the “fishiness” without masking its unique flavour and, if anything, lent support to the delicate texture. The harissa sauce added a lovely piquancy to the dish, which balanced out the richness from the fish and pine nut stuffing. A delicious preparation, but do watch out for teeny tiny bones.

Mackerel


Mackerel - Broiled with sesame seeds, pickled sunchokes, and kabayaki sauce with orange and long peppers ($9.50)

This was perfection on a plate. The mackerel was plump, soft and silky with the most satisfyingly thin crispy skin. Eaten together with the accompanying pickled sunchokes, this was an outstanding example of how sweet and salty and tangy can produce bold yet highly nuanced flavours.

The wine I had with the sardine and mackerel was the Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva 2007, Chianti Rufina.

Octopus


Octopus - Charred octopus with swiss chard, chorizo, white bean purée and romesco sauce ($11.50)

This is another protein most diners will be familiar with. The octopus is served in generously sized pieces, with a rich smoky flavour that was a nice change of pace from the typical preparations. It was tender but still had that signature chew, without ever being tough. The earthiness of the chorizo sausage and bean purée made this a very substantial dish. Definitely dip into the romesco sauce, which provides a flash of brightness in both colour and taste.

Jellyfish


Jellyfish - Stir fried with pork jowl, lotus root chips, chili and green onions with hoisin sauce and pea shoot salad ($10.50)

If you’ve never had jellyfish before, it’s not what you’d expect from such an ethereal, fluid creature. Here it’s served in thin slices and has a crunchy, almost crisp, texture. It marries well with this meaty, slightly sweet sauce, which imparts to the jellyfish a richness and depth of flavour. Love the lotus root chips!

The wine I had with the octopus and the jellyfish was the Josef Chromy Pinot Noir 2009, Tasmania.

Herring and Seaweed

There are two additional plates to this menu I didn’t try but that do sound equally as delicious and innovative:
Herring  - Celery salad with preserved watermelon, walnuts, fuji apples and watercress ($9.50)
Seaweed  - Kaiso sunomono mixed seaweed salad with tosa-zu sauce and ginger ($7.50)

This year’s Unsung Heroes Festival runs from 1 February to February 29. And, as always, 10% of proceeds will be donated to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program, of which Blue Water Cafe is a founding member.

Blue Water Cafe is located at 1095 Hamilton St. (@ Helmcken) | 604-688-8078

Photos by C. Tse