Dinner to benefit the bay is reassuring experience

September 17, 1997|By Rob Kasper

Friday night I was among a crowd of about 350 who ate local seafood. We dined on almond-crusted rockfish, crab and salmon hash and crab soup. The occasion was the Taste of the Chesapeake, a black-tie dinner that raises money for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a nonprofit organization concerned with the health of the bay.

Such dinners have been part of the Baltimore scene since 1992 when Nancy Longo, chef of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point, first got area chefs interested in raising money to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. But lately, when local folks eat local seafood it seems like news.

The demand for Maryland seafood has slumped amid reports of three rivers being hit by Pfiesteria piscicida, a toxic microorganism blamed for fish lesions.

Maryland officials have repeatedly stated that Chesapeake Bay seafood is safe to eat. They have said that the closed rivers produce very few fish for commercial markets. They have stressed that there is no evidence linking the microorganism with food-borne illness. And they have said that cooking will destroy any microorganisms associated with fish decay.

Nonetheless, the photos of fish with spots on their bodies don't exactly whet your appetite for seafood. So I was somewhat skittish the other night when I went to the National Aquarium to sample the dishes that 13 area chefs were serving at the benefit dinner.

Luckily, one of the first dishes I sampled was the Maryland crab soup from Peerce's Plantation, served by chefs Brian Boston and Josef Gohring. It was crab soup as it should be -- red, crabby and loaded with vegetables that had not turned to mush.

A good crab soup, of course, can do more than fill your stomach. It can also soothe. And that is what this soup did to me. Instead of feeling jittery about the local fish and crabs, I soon felt grateful to be in their company. I went in search of more.

I found a serving of Maryland rockfish covered with almonds, and dug in. According to Michael Rork, chef of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels, this rockfish came from the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. It tasted as if it came from heaven. It was firm, moist and sweet.

It confirmed my belief that rockfish is the best-tasting fish in the bay.

I wasn't the only one at the party wolfing down the rockfish. Rork later told me that the partygoers ate virtually all of the 60 pounds of rockfish he cooked. Only one partygoer, Rork said, questioned him about the condition of the fish.

"I told him I only bought fish that still had the skin on, and if there were any lesions I could see them," Rork said. "Then I told him, 'Hey, that is what we are here for -- to taste the Chesapeake,' " Rork said. The questioner, Rork said, ended up eating the rockfish.

After I finished the rockfish, I went on a seafood-eating binge. I ate a crab and salmon hash served on a pancake made out of crushed avocado. This dish was whipped up by Mark Hofmann, the chef of Rothwells Grille. I had never considered making hash out of crab meat or making a pancake out of an avocado. Eating the dish was a delicious, learning experience.

Even when I ate meat, I talked about seafood. For instance, while enjoying the French country pate served by David Rudie of Le Bistro Midi, I talked to him about soft crabs. He likes to serve them in a beurre blanc sauce.

When I asked the chefs if their restaurant customers were still ordering fish, most echoed the replies given by Longo and Randy Stahl of the Brass Elephant.

Customers are still eating fish, Longo and Stahl said, but they are asking more questions about where the fish came from. Customers want reassurance, it seems, that the fish came from disease-free waters.

After the dinner I spoke with Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. She offered a two-part analysis of recent Chesapeake Bay events.

The outbreak of Pfiesteria, she said, could be "a wake-up call. We might have had a tendency to believe that things in the bay were all taken care of. Maybe Mother Nature is showing us there are still things we don't know."

For her second point about the health of the Chesapeake Bay, she referred to Friday night's dinner. "That almond-crusted rockfish was fantastic," she said. "I am going to try making that at home."

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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