Freshness off the hook at Fork feast

Fork chef Terence Feury adds olive oil to the sea bass just before popping them into the oven. Fishing out on the Atlantic, he got the first, uh, tug.
Fork chef Terence Feury adds olive oil to the sea bass just before popping them into the oven. Fishing out on the Atlantic, he got the first, uh, tug.
Posted: July 20, 2009

No one had counted on the fluke. The fluke was a bonus.

The real target was the good-eating black sea bass known to be biting off Atlantic City. They congregate over the old shipwrecks five or six miles offshore - easy, almost-guaranteed pickings, which is important if you've promised the freshest fish dinner in the city.

That was the hook that Fork, the top-rated Old City bistro, used to reel in a charter boat's worth of customers for its $200 all-inclusive Fisherman's Dinner on Saturday evening.

The catch was that the catch-of-the-day was what they'd catch. So returning from the day of deep-sea fishing empty-handed was not an option - although, as Fork's owner Ellen Yin put it, "We're Fork. Of course there's a Plan B."

Still, neither plan quite envisioned what really went down.

Who'd have figured that it would be a big-time Hollywood sound man - taking a break from work on the Jack Nicholson-Reese Witherspoon comedy being shot in Center City - who'd be the unlikely star?

Or that the wife of Fork's storied fishmonger would land the only fish weighty enough to require a net . . . and good-looking enough to inspire a change in the menu?

You can only take precautions. Aboard the 64-foot Capt. Collett when it slipped away from the modest Atlantic City Fishing Center at 10 on the sparkling Saturday morning was "Fork Fishmonger" Tony McCarthy, a sort of Clint Eastwood of the sea, legendary for fishing with poles in both hands, skimming through Barnegat Bay on his Wave Runner.

Sitting second chair: Fork chef Terence Feury, the former top toque at Striped Bass and arguably the finest seafood chef in town, no slouch with a rod himself. He'd lived at the Shore in his student days at Atlantic Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts.

Feury's brother Patrick, head chef at Nectar in Berwyn, had his back. And Yin's boyfriend Wayne Aretz, a "wreck fishing" enthusiast, was fitted out to the gills, a battle-tested fishing machine, from his personal pole to his broad-brimmed, crushable hat.

The paying customers were a bit less practiced - a couple whose sons had given them the trip for their 40th wedding anniversary, a pair of Old City foodies who'd signed up just the morning before, and, among others, the sound man, Carl Fisher, and his colleague, Mitch Dubin, a noted cinematographer also in town for the still-nameless Nicholson feature, whose working title had once been How Do You Know?

Boy, how do you? No one knew what lurked in the deep.

The only sure thing - or presumed to be sure - was that Feury had the chops to turn it into a dinner the crew would likely be talking about for weeks, at least, to come.

The Capt. Collett churned through the heaving seas, doing 14 knots.

Those who chose to listen got a tutorial on freshness from McCarthy, on whom Feury has relied for the city's choicest fish since they worked together at Striped Bass nearly 10 years ago. (McCarthy's Anthony's Seafood, based in Bayville, N.J., serves 20 accounts now, including Rouge, Buddakan, and Nectar, besides Fork.)

The fish in your supermarket seafood case is, at best, probably three days old by the time it's landed, and often five or more days old when it's rotated in and out of stock, sent to a distributor, then trucked to the store.

But McCarthy deals exclusively with a different niche - "top of the trip" fish, the last ones caught before the boat makes port at Viking Village near Barnegat Light; fish never stored in the hold, often caught the same day. It's considered the ultra-premium of the trade - caught, trucked, portioned and on your restaurant plate within 28 hours.

Now the Fisherman's Dinner was aiming to knock 20 hours off even that.

McCarthy specializes in the Mid-Atlantic fishery, the movable feast of migratory fish between New Bedford, Mass., and generally, the Carolinas. This time of year that means East Coast halibut, sushi-grade tuna, sweet scallops, black sea bass, and stripers (though forget about ones coming out of Maryland; the water's too warm now for good flavor).

He also deals in fluke, the meatier member of the flounder family. But fluke, he says, is a royal pain. It's what he calls "a 30-to-1 throwback," meaning that fishermen end up throwing back 30 for every legal-sized fluke - over 18 inches - they're allowed to keep.

An hour out of Atlantic City, dolphins are breaching off the Capt. Collet's starboard. The sun is shining. Beers are opened. Chunks of mackerel and clam are baited on hooks.

Just before 11, anchor is dropped at the first wreck site, signaled by a bobbing flag.

At 11:08, chef Feury feels a mighty tug.

A pool has been collected; $2 apiece for the first fish, the most fish, the biggest fish.

What Feury has hooked, however, is not a fish.

It is the wreck.

Or maybe even the bottom.

A relative novice, Carl Fisher, the bearded L.A. sound man ("Hey, my name is Fisher!), hooks the first black bass keeper (a 13¾-incher; legal size is 12 inches).

He then proceeds to haul in five or six more, losing count.

McCarthy lands the biggest bass, a bit over 19 inches.

But not the biggest fish: His wife, Sharon, soon hooks a mighty fluke - the elusive fluke! - flat as a flapjack and, at 22 inches, heavy enough to require the net.

A few bony sea robins - odd-looking fish the size of a dove, fins flared laterally like wings - are kept to flavor a sauce.

In no time, there's plenty in the cooler for a generous dinner.

Feury surveys the chest of ice back at Fork, lifting out a bass stiff with rigor mortis: "It's still almost alive," he says, showing how to scale and gut it to the one couple - foodies Chip and Lynn Brickman- who decide to avail themselves of this rather graphic part of the program.

By 7 p.m., the chef has his ducks in a row: For a starter (in homage to the mackerel used as bait) he has grilled some silvery Spanish mackerel that McCarthy dropped off the night before. Fuery had lightly salt-cured it, smoked it briefly over dried rosemary sprigs in a Weber out back, slicked it with Tuscan olive oil from Fork co-owner Roberto Sella's own olive grove, and sauced with a gently tangy baby carrot escabeche.

Next come slick bulbs of fork-tender calamari - McCarthy had baited his lines with squid - stuffed with chorizo and oregano, and roasted eggplant.

And the menu addendum: blocks of Sharon McCarthy's pan-roasted fluke, firm and mild, cooked in a saffron bouillabaisse broth flavored with the bony sea robins, then stacked over a bed of leeks and fennel, and rich heirloom tomatoes that had been slow-roasted all night over the oven's soft pilot light.

Ah, then the whole, succulently moist, silky-textured black sea bass, split and stuffed with lemon slices and herbs, roasted on a bed of fennel fronds, then paired with a sublime iman bayaldi, which is like the ratatouille of the gods, and a lush, green parsley coulis.

"Unfortunately," Feury intoned, as the party of 20 toasted him at the candle-lit chef's table at Fork: Etc., the bistro's lovely, prepared-foods wing, "we didn't catch any Key limes today. But that's what's for dessert - Key lime chiffon pie ."

But who was getting technical? The crew members had caught the lion's share of their supper.

They'd had it on the plate a little over seven hours out of the Atlantic.

And that's how they knew - for one of the few times in their lives - just exactly how fresh it was.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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