Unusual Sustainable Seafood Served at Vancouver’s Blue Water Cafe

From succulent spot prawns to spiny sea urchins, Blue Water Cafe’s executive chef Frank Pabst gives these “unsung heroes” their due

Credit: LS Lam

Blue Water Cafe’s Frank Pabst is passionate about protecting our daily catch

The prickly spines of Pacific sea urchin, the suction cups and tentacles of octopus, and the rich 
oiliness of mackerel might deter even the most ardent advocates for sustainable seafood.

But under the skilful preparation of Executive Chef Frank Pabst of Yaletown’s Blue Water Cafe, these “unsung heroes” can outshine their red-listed counterparts.

Pabst is passionate about protecting our daily catch. And, as evidenced from his cookbook, Blue Water Cafe, he matches his razor-sharp precision in the kitchen with his in-depth knowledge of the seafood industry. Like most of Vancouver’s celebrated chefs, Pabst prefers to serve what’s fresh, in season, and sustainable. And that’s what prompted him to launch an annual menu of unsung heroes – local, sustainable seafood that’s often ignored because of its strong flavours, peculiar textures and curious outward appearances. 

The end goal, as outlined in Pabst’s book: “Conserve overused, under-populated species of fish and shellfish by using underused, abundant species.” Pabst’s special menu appears for a month early in the year when B.C.’s seasonal bounty starts to dwindle, but many choices are also available at Blue Water Cafe year-round.

For instance, people can sample the powerful flavours of fish such as mackerel, sardines and herring, which are popular in Europe but underappreciated in the Pacific Northwest. Or they can enjoy the crunchy texture of jellyfish prepared in a salad with Asian pears.

Seasonal Servings of the Local Catch

For just two months of the year (March and April), adventurous types can savour the meaty texture and flavour of local herring, a rare treat when served sashimi-style at Blue Water Cafe.

In May, B.C. spot prawns turn up fresh for sale off the fishing boats at Granville Island. The prawns’ distinctive white spot makes for easy identification, but the name of these sustainable trap-caught crustaceans is a misnomer. 

“The spot prawn is actually a large shrimp species,” says Pabst. “It’s not actually a real prawn, so that’s why their texture and flavour is also very different from a regular prawn. It’s much sweeter, much softer,” he explains. Pabst suggests home chefs cook spot prawns simply (keep the flavourful heads on) in a bit of water, or in a pan with olive oil and garlic. Just peel, plunge into a dip if you like, and indulge. 

Sustainable Seafood

The annual spot prawn festival draws legions to local restaurants and fishing boats, but who knew that the waters off B.C.’s coast were full of other sustainable seafood stars begging to be brought out into the spotlight, like migratory neon flying squid that’s available from July through to early October? 

Or that late summer brings the much-maligned sardine to the fishing boats in Steveston, where chefs celebrate the fresh flavours that are incomparable to the tinned variety. Not convinced? Anyone who’s ever had rare or raw ahi tuna knows that there’s no likeness to the varieties that come packed in a can. 

Not all tuna species are equal, though, when it comes to sustainability. Sure, you’ll find bigeye tuna tataki on the menu at Blue Water Cafe, but don’t expect to dive into the fois gras of tuna – bluefin – renowned for its fatty texture. It’s a no-go for Pabst, who also takes a pass on the trifecta of unsustainable caviars: beluga, osetra and sevruga. And don’t try to order it off-menu, either. “It just does not go with our philosophy,” he says. “We do carry caviar from the East Coast that is labelled Ocean Wise.” 

Pabst notes that, thanks to education, endangered Chilean sea bass has all but disappeared off menus, especially in seafood savvy Vancouver. Surprisingly, though, monkfish and halibut (from Canada’s East Coast) still make appearances on restaurant menus and in markets, yet both species are over-fished.

Pabst shares another eye-opener: Pacific red snapper, he says, “is not a real red snapper but a rockfish. It takes a very long time to reproduce, yet you can buy them at any grocery store for very cheap. I think that is one of the fishes you should be a bit more careful about.””

Pacific halibut gets the green light. “The halibut is fantastic and it’s very well managed,” says Pabst. And so does sablefish – black cod – which is available year-round. “It’s a very good sustainable seafood option that is coming right from our waters.” Plus there’s a new offering that’s being touted as the next delicacy – Sableenes – a little chunk of “meat” that comes from the sablefish collar, comparable to a halibut cheek. 

Sea Urchin Dish Wins Gold Metal Plate

Pabst’s most prized sustainable seafood is also one of his unsung heroes. It’s been around for more than 500 million years and doesn’t have an imaginative sobriquet to make it sound more palatable. In fact, this delicacy – the red sea urchin – helped Pabst win top honours at last year’s Gold Medal Plates culinary competition. 

The star chef took a careful approach when preparing the gutsy ingredient. But that’s not to say he chose the safe route by choosing B.C.’s green sea urchin, which is smaller than the red sea urchin and has a sweeter flavour. “It really reminded me, the first time when I tried it, of the sweetness of fresh scallop,” says Pabst.

Instead, he took a cue from his palate and chose the stronger-tasting red sea urchin typically served in sushi restaurants, and paired it with scallop, thus balancing the ingredients in a bold-flavour-meets-delicate texture mousse. 

“[The red sea urchin] is a little strong in flavour, and for first-timers might be a bit too overwhelming,” says Pabst. “So what I was trying to do was come up with a dish that the broader public would enjoy, without losing too much of [the sea urchin] flavour.”

By breaking into that spiny shell and coaxing the custard-like sections of sea urchin roe into a fabulous dish, Pabst has shone a bright light on one of his unsung heroes. Perhaps people will be tempted to try their own hand at his recipe for red sea urchin paired with kusshi oysters.

Or be even more daring. After all, says Pabst, “Purists would probably tell you it’s still best to eat sea urchin fresh out of the shell.”

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.