Any dish made with local products is bound to be special, but when the star of that dish is fish from our coastal waters, you're in for the ultimate in South Carolina eating.
It wasn't long ago that culinary destinations such as Charleston were mired in what many chefs call the "Age of Fed-Ex," that is, a time when fish, meats and other ingredients were shipped in from other regions of the country to meet restaurant demands. Today, a growing number of chefs demonstrate a strong commitment to using local products and, in doing so, put South Carolina's best water-dwellers front and center for your dining pleasure.
The demand is high, as evidenced by the throngs of seafood lovers rushing the counters of markets, such as Edisto Seafood in Edisto Beach or Seven Seas in Murrells Inlet, for Carolina grouper, swordfish, black sea bass, lane snapper, wahoo, mahi and tuna.
Many of our finest eateries make a point of supporting local seafood suppliers that follow sustainable seafood practices and offer unparalleled freshness. One such harvester is Abundant Seafood in Mount Pleasant, a fresh-off-the-boat operation, where orders are filled right on the dock. That kind of aesthetic truly exemplifies the "eat South Carolina fresh" way of life. Of course, adhering to seafood sustainability means a species of fish may disappear altogether from menus until such a time that it is abundant enough to be fished again. Just think of it the same way you think of seasonal crops like corn or tomatoes, which are best eaten when supplies are abundant.
The South Carolina Aquarium Good Catch program strongly encourages diners to ask about the origins of seafood before they order. Doing so lets proprietors know two things: 1. You care about our oceans and the sea life living in them, and 2. You want the freshest seafood money can buy. There's plenty of delicious eating being sourced from our waters.
While you'll find the usual seafood suspects on a lot of menus - flounder, grouper, tilapia, among others - you are bound to see some "new-to-you" varieties in the line-up, too. Don't be afraid to give them a try. Here are a few that get rave review from the state's finest chefs as well as diners.
Amberjack: This mild, succulent fish is similar to swordfish, though often thicker and juicier. Many chefs prefer it on the grill.
Barrelfish: Firm and flaky, this white meat fish has a distinct taste that's been described as a mash-up of lobster and crab. It can be prepared a variety of ways: baked, fried, grilled or broiled.
Porgy: Mild and sweet, porgy has a taste profile that's comparable to snapper. You might see this small fish cooked whole or filleted and grilled.
Rudderfish: Often compared to tuna, this fish is firm with a clean taste. A member of the amberjack family, it makes a delicious dish when grilled or pan-seared.
Tilefish: This fish - firm, tender and white - is said to taste like lobster. It can be steamed, baked, broiled, grilled or poached, so just about anything goes.
Triggerfish: With a clean, sweet taste and firm, white flesh, this fish has won over many a chef. If you're a crab lover, you might just be won over, too, as it shares a similar taste profile and texture.
Wreckfish: These big boys - which can weigh in at 60 pounds or more - are comparable to grouper with firm, mild, white meat and large flakes. This means it can be baked, broiled, grilled or pan-seared and even encrusted with a mixture of herbs for a savory crunch. One bite, and you might just forget about grouper altogether.