A pain in pond, a delight to diners

Cafe earns raves for snakehead dish

August 24, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Say what you will about the sharp-toothed, torpedo-shaped, air-breathing, fin-walking, pickerel-eating "Frankenfish" that's been terrorizing a Crofton pond all summer.

But don't say the snakehead tastes like chicken.

Roasted in banana leaves, slathered in spicy Indonesian curry and garnished with organic St. Mary's tomatoes, the northern snakehead fish is a sweet, hearty surprise. It has the texture of halibut and the sweetness of eel. It looks like trout or bass on the plate, but most diners who tried it for the first time at the Yin Yankee Cafe in Annapolis this week found it so different from anything they'd ever eaten they couldn't name a fish that tasted like it.

"Hmm. There's a sweet taste to it. Very delightful. Very flavorful," said Joe Spinelli, a restaurant consultant who lives on Kent Island.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said waitress Laura Shelton, who tried a bite at a customer's urging. (She ate it behind the bar, in case her face betrayed any displeasure with the just-ordered $20 dinner.)

Neither Yin Yankee Cafe owner Kim Klopcic nor chef Jerry Trice had tried the fish before they bought six snakeheads in New York's Bowery this week. Now they're serving the famous fish only a few miles from the pond where it's feared it has devoured native species. Trice served them for the first time Thursday evening, and declared the trial run such a success that he plans to go to New York again this weekend to pick up three dozen more.

At first, diners seemed to question whether they had the gastronomic fortitude befitting the much mythologized fish.

"What does it look like? Is it good? Does it taste like snake?" customers inquired. The waitress could talk at length about the Kimono Seared Salmon and the Ahi Tuna Tartar, but couldn't vouch for the snakehead. Some patrons took a pass.

Spinelli became the first of five diners to order the "Chinese Walking Banana Fish." All five tables, though, declared the fish delicious. They oohed and ahhed over Trice's presentation of the snakehead on a bed of banana leaves, like an ear of fresh corn that had been roasted in its own husk. The universal complaint? Too bony. Forget chopsticks; you need a knife and fork to even attempt a clean bite.

Future diners shouldn't have that problem, though. Trice said he's planning to fillet the fish from now on. He's also considering various other "applications," including snakehead sushi and crispy snakehead skin croutons.

And what wine goes with roasted invasive predator? Trice recommends a lush, tropical pinot blanc (though for the squeamish, a couple cold sakes to start might help). Sushi rolls or calamari work well as appetizers. And for dessert?

"You gotta have the Crazy Banana to carry out the banana theme," he said, referring to a coconut ice cream and grilled banana concoction.

Trice, who's also the voice of Yin Yankee's radio commercials (which have been declaring the snakehead a "babe magnet"), said he's aware his new dish's days may be numbered. U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton has proposed a ban on importing the fish, likening them to something out of a bad horror movie. Many ichthyologists concur, and say a ban is the only way to keep snakeheads out of fresh water ecosystems like the pond in Crofton.

A local man dumped a male and female snakehead into the pond two years ago; they spawned, and an infestation was born. State biologists are in the process of poisoning the pond to kill all the snakeheads - and everything else.

Klopcic and Trice say that's just wrong. The fish, they say, is misunderstood. It should be eaten, not nuked with some sort of aquatic napalm. And for now, they still have their mysterious New York Chinatown supplier - far from Maryland's pond-poisoning officials.

On Thursday, though, the law came to them, in the form of state Department of Natural Resources Assistant Secretary Carolyn Watson. Her staff is on deck for the snakehead poisoning, and she thought she'd treat them to lunch. She didn't have time to wait for the banana-themed takeout, so she bought one raw and planned to cook it at home and take it in to work.

The victors eating their enemy? Watson shrugged at any suggestions of impropriety.

"It's consumed us, so we're going to consume it."

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