I had my very first bowl of shark's fin soup last week at Super Star Asian (see review). As a culinary indulgence, it wasn't worth the money; if I'm paying $46 for a bowl of soup, it had better come garnished with about $38 in small bills. But as a taste of history, it was worth every cent. Until the mid-1980s, shark fin -- along with abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw (the swim bladder of a large fish, washed and dried), which together make up the "four treasures of the sea" in traditional Chinese cuisine -- was rarely found outside of hyper-regionalized American and Canadian Chinese restaurants and the fanciest of mainland Chinese eateries. A regional delicacy of Canton and southern China, shark's fin soup was seen as a dish of conspicuous excess, one that carried with it uncomfortable connotations (at least in the Communist world) of elitism and snobbery, and was served more as a show of wealth and power than a purely epicurean delight. At weddings and feasts, celebrations and the conclusion of business deals, shark's fin soup was a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Like Petrossian caviar. Or truffles. Or blow.
But then came those high-flying years of John DeLorean, George Jung and Flock of Seagulls. In the late '80s and early '90s, it seemed as though everything that had once been reserved for special occasions and Hollywood starlets was being eaten, drunk or snorted by pretty much everyone. If an item was rare, proscribed, illegal or expensive for no good reason, odds were good that your hairdresser, that waterhead working behind the counter at the record store or your mom would know where to get some.
Almost overnight, shark's fin soup went from delicate rumor to rough availability. And while neither it nor fish maw ever caught on the way cocaine and beluga did, after 1987 -- the year Beijing removed its official stamp of disapproval from the dish -- shark's fin soup became almost a staple at Chinese feasts and parties in every city large enough to boast its own Chinatown. In New York and Philadelphia, sharks' fins can be purchased dried and bagged at markets along Race Street and Canal. In Denver, it's available up and down Federal and Alameda.
Shark fin trade
To learn more, I called Gene Tang, my go-to guy for all things weird and Chinese. He was the man who got me to eat cold pickled pig's ear for the first time, the man who found me my first whole abalone at Ocean City. And when I asked him what he knew about shark's fin soup, he replied, "A lot. What do you want to know?"
I wanted to know where he went to get it (Vancouver) and what you could expect to pay for it ($40 to 60 a bowl for the real stuff, half that for the fake skate and ray-wing versions, double that in New York City) and when it was eaten by real people.
"Special occasions, mostly," he said. "Banquets. It's the kind of thing you have to call ahead for, order in advance." Tang then explained how the shark fin is properly prepared: The dry cartilage is soaked, cooked over low heat, washed, soaked again, boiled low with ginger and scallions to get out the fish smell, served traditionally in a powerful chicken broth (although I'm fairly sure that Super Star used a shiitake-mushroom broth) shot with rice wine and topped with shredded ham.
We discussed how the buying, selling and serving of shark fin isn't really illegal, just nasty -- like the importation of durian fruit or serving ortolans. Since a lot of the fins that make their way to market are taken in a process called "finning" -- in which a shark is caught (often accidentally by fisherman going out for tuna or sword) and butchered alive, its fin cut off with a knife, then the rest of the body thrown back into the sea where the shark either bleeds to death or drowns -- there are plenty of people who won't eat shark's fin soup. For years, there have been calls for a global ban on the practice, but because of the recent explosion in demand for shark fin, finning (which has actually been banned in many countries, just not all of them) has increased dramatically.
I'm with the fish on this one. It's not that I consider killing fish for food to be wrong -- or that killing any animal for its tastiest parts is wrong. What bothers me is the waste. Fishermen throw the finned shark carcasses away because the fins are the most valuable part and they can fit more fins on the boat if the holds aren't all jammed up with shark carcasses. But if you kill something for food, you should use it all. That's the rule. Anything less than that and you're showing disrespect for the critter that's filling your belly. Besides, shark meat is tasty.
Anyway, I've had my shark's fin soup, and I've had it done extraordinarily well. So I don't think I'll be ordering it again anytime soon. Fish maw, on the other hand Since I've now been lucky enough to taste three treasures of the sea, I think it's only right to round things off by sampling all four. I'll let you know how it goes the next time I take a spin through Super Star.
Through the swinging doors: After we were done yakking about shark fins, Tang and I started talking about the new guy in his galley -- Ulises Salas, who took over the kitchen at 1515 Restaurant after chef Olav Peterson took off for Euro.
"Four, five years ago, I would've been afraid to change chefs," Tang explained. But not now: Thanks to the Internet, after the top toque's gig came open at his restaurant at 1515 Market Street, he got more than fifty applications from across the country, from chefs with excellent resumés, all willing to move to Denver to cook. Tang said he was amazed by the quality of the responses, and went with Salas not just because he was available and local, but the best of the candidates -- an award-winner with pro time at the California Cafe, Le Central and Kevin Taylor's restaurants already behind him. Plus, Tang liked his menus, and menus are an indispensable part of any chef's portfolio these days.
While Salas puts his stamp on 1515, there could be light at the end of the tunnel at 231 Milwaukee Street, where Peterson now runs the Euro kitchen. In the past year alone, this address has been an old-guard steak house, a fancy-pants French restaurant with piano jazz and servers in French maid outfits, closed (for construction), smelly (from a bad sewer line), too hot to tolerate (from AC difficulties), empty, a small-plates operation, a hip bar, a house divided (when it made the split from Steak au Poivre and became both Bar Luxe and Euro), and -- oddly --half an Italian restaurant. There were problems between owner-financier Henry Roath and his daughter, Jean Garrett (who'd been married to Bruce Garrett while the two of them were running the Manhattan Grill, which is what 231 Milwaukee was before the overhaul), and more problems between Garrett and Marco Colantonio, who'd come in to manage/consult and try to get the space back on its feet.
Colantonio abruptly resigned his position at Luxe/Euro late last month. "It was a good run down there," he said. "I used every trick in my restaurateur's bag of tricks. After ten months of beating a dead horse, I didn't do much to the horse, but Christ, are my arms tired."
Peterson, though, is just getting started. "Marco is a great guy; I'm sure he's going to be fine," he says. "But my job is to take this kitchen and make it work. That's the goal. We're here to make this thing fucking work."
Spoken like a true chef.
And to that end, he's brought in Andrew Shock (his former sous at 1515) and Marc Carmean from Emma's to round out the team after the departure last month of consulting chef Michel Wahaltere (who's now in the final buildout stages for his Seven Eurobar at 1035 Pearl Street in Boulder, scheduled for a May opening). Peterson has also written a new menu that's all his, focusing not just on the straight Frog classics, but a more Frenchy-Continental vision -- a circuitously European menu to match the Euro brand. He's got escargot and calamari, lobster cappuccino and a ménage à-trois of gazpachos, rigatoni Bolognese and halibut dusted with porcini and served with a spread of smoked Norwegian-style shellfish.
What's more, the place has finally started to move some numbers -- and a half-price deal that ended March 31 certainly helped, filling Euro's dining room all last week. It was a deliberate fiduciary bloodletting, but it got the kitchen on track. "Being busy like this has really helped," Peterson explains. "The 50 percent-off thing really helped. We want people to come through the doors, man. That's what we're here for. We're working on stuff, re-tweaking stuff. You know how it goes. We're still inside our first ninety days, so we're working everything out, but that's the goal. We want people to come through the doors. Simple. That's what we're here for."
Three months ago, Euro didn't have a theme, it didn't have a committed chef with a vision, it didn't have a plan beyond keeping its disasters out of the press as much as possible (a plan that worked not at all, by the way). But now, thirty days into Peterson's new menu, it's like a brand-new restaurant, staffed by guys dedicated to doing what cooks are supposed to do: cook dinner. The rumors and he-said/she-said and all the rest don't matter, because in the kitchen, all a chef sees are his numbers -- the head count and the amount of plates being moved.
And on the last Saturday in March, Euro did 130 covers. A record for the house, a good night for the kitchen, and not bad for a place that's brand-new at eleven months old.
Leftovers: This year's Best of Denver winner for "Best Hoagie," Pat's #1, now has a third outpost, at 1624 Market Street, so I no longer have to drive all the way out to Greenwood Village for a killer salami sandwich -- and even better, this new Pat's is open 'til three in the morning. Also keeping vampires' hours in the neighborhood is Snooze, a new restaurant at 2262 Larimer Street whose business plan calls for opening at 2 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and staying open until 3 p.m. those days. We'll see how long that lasts. Monday through Friday, Snooze is sticking with more standard breakfast-bar hours, from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Cuba Libre, at 12684 West Indore Place in Littleton ("Running on Empty," March 16), is adding a Sunday brunch to its lineup beginning Easter Day. One of the brunch specials is a whole roasted suckling pig -- which means that there will now be two places in town regularly serving whole roasted suckling pigs: Cuba Libre and Somethin' Else, which roasts up the piglets every Tuesday. Not only that, but Cuba Libre will also feature a brunch plateau de fruits de mer that rivals the one done by Sean Kelly at Somethin' Else, offering poached shrimp, crab legs, oysters and a lobster tail with Cuban cocktail sauce and mojo for just eighteen bucks.
Man, I am so there.