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I Scuba For Scallops Taste Off: The Results

Richard Chamberlain and chef Lan Nickens start the competition.
Richard Chamberlain and chef Lan Nickens start the competition.

I’ve just returned from Chamberlain’s Fish Market Grill in Addison where Richard Chamberlain and I hosted the “I Scuba for Scallops Taste Off.” There were 12 tasters and all 12 picked the hand-harvested diver sea scallops over dry-packaged U-10 sea scallops. As we’ve noted, many restaurants offer “diver scallops” on their menus but very few actually serve real diver (hand-harvested) scallops. I’ve only located two places in Dallas—The French Room and Aurora—that serve them occasionally on tasting menus.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned—a lot of chefs in Dallas don’t know the difference. Richard Chamberlain admitted that he had “diver” printed on his menu and he was serving dry-packaged U-10s. Today Chamberlain not only educated our little group, he also educated his staff.  Chamberlain has a batch of hand-harvested diver scallops. If you want to do a tasting, he and his chef Lan Nickens will be happy to cook up a plate for you until they run out. If you’re a seafood fan, this is a big treat. Real diver scallops are not only rare they cost 40 percent more than the U-10s.

U-10s at top. Divers at bottom
U-10s (top). Diver scallops (bottom).

The first noticeable difference between the two was the color. The raw dry packaged U-10s were light, almost white while the divers had a grayish, tan tint. Once cooked, the diver scallops seared to a gorgeous caramel brown while the U-10s stopped at a light “biscuit” brown. I’m guessing water content played a roll in the caramelization—diver scallops aren’t packed in water or stored on ice for longer periods of time like U-10s. The diver scallops were “denser” with a “meatier” texture while the U-10s appeared “looser” with a “springy” texture. If either one of these cooked scallops appeared alone on a plate you would consider each a thing of beauty. However, when we put the two side-by-side, our eyes and taste buds gravitated to the diver.

JUMP FOR MORE PHOTOS.

Diver scallops first hit the pan.
Divers hit the pan.
12 U-10s (left) 12 divers (right)
12 U-10s (left) 12 divers (right)

12 comments on “I Scuba For Scallops Taste Off: The Results

  1. Great event today…thanks to Nancy and the staff at Chamberlin’s.

    I love these kinds of food comparison tastings (I do it with wine for a living).

    I recommend to anyone that is remotely interested to get to Chamberlin’s and do the comparison yourself. There is a distinct difference between them. And it’s not that the u-10’s that they use are low-quality (quite the opposite), it’s just that the true divers are actually that much better.

    I’m just sayin’…

  2. I sincerely appreciate the wonderful afternoon spent with you and our host, chef Chamberlain, as well as the other familiar names I had been eager to meet.

    The scallops were delightful and delicatly sweet, cooked or served raw. And the bonus fried halibut that was offered was especially crisp and light made my day even brighter.

    Lenten will not be the same this year.

  3. I’d not draw too many conclusions based on the post-cooking color of the scallops. It’s not like the scallops decided to stop browning – it’s just that the chef stopped browning them. But I agree that the rate of browning would be influenced by the water content… Does it not seem counter-intuitive that the “dry-packaged” scallops come packed in water? What exactly does “dry-packaged” mean, then? Are either type of scallop shipped in the shell? The pre-cooking colors are impressively different, though! It would have been a good idea to try some of these raw (assuming they’re of sufficient quality).

    And, it would be interesting to hear from a chef (Chamberlain, perhaps?) why they are mis-labeling the scallops on their menus. There seems to be some misinformation here… it would be nice to know where it’s coming from – the chefs? the distributors? the fishermen?

  4. gavlist,
    I was standing beside the chefs while they were cooking the scallops. They were put in the pans at the same time, on the same heat level, and cooked for the same amount of time. We all remarked at the different colors and textures. The U-10s are dry-packaged meaning they are packed in a metal container without water. We did sample both scallops raw and I just realized I forgot to copy and paste that paragraph into my report. Raw, the diver scallops were distinctively different–very “gooey” almost like a jellybean to me. The U-10 was leaner and dissolved quicker in the mouth. Diver was also a bit gritty (they are harvested from sandier beds in shallower waters). Both types of scallops can be ordered in the shell but the shipping cost, of course, goes way up. Avner Samuel (Aurora) does buy them and serve them in the shell on his tasting menu from time to time. What I’ve found from talking to chefs and restaurateurs is that they don’t know what day boat, bay, diver, etc actually means when referring to a scallop. They see it written somewhere and just use the term. They haven’t been educated. It makes me nuts which is what got me going on this whole project. The fisherman know the diff but they are so removed from chefs and who knows about the distributors. Some really take an effort to educate their chefs/customers while others just take orders and promote what they need to get rid of. The reputable seafood eateries in Dallas have good relationships with their suppliers and present and promote good seafood products. Chamberlain is not alone in making this mistake and, to his credit, he certainly stepped up to the plate today to learn the difference and teach his staff and some SideDish readers the real story of scallops.

  5. Nancy, sorry to correct you on your own blog, but the diver scallops are in shallow water on rocky beds while the dredged scallops are further out, deeper water and sandy beds…and it’s the dredged that more often are gritty.

    Gavlist, both scallops were dry-packed, salted with pink Hawaiian salt and seared on the same stove top at the same time for the same amount of time. This I witnessed. But notice the darker color of the pre-cooked divers. Their color and their texture (both pre- and post-cooking) was a denser, richer texture than the dredges. One could assume that part of this density and richness is from more natural sugars in the meat of the scallop…which would contribute directly to the post-cooking color. It was not attributed to careless over-cooking.

  6. actually, I was thinking “careless” under-cooking of the U10s (although I wouldn’t put it that harshly) – the color of the diver scallops is beautiful. Some of the U10s in the pan are just as dark though, and some of the diver scallops are a bit lighter. I’m just suggesting that a little more time in the pan would bring the rest of the U10s to the same color. I agree that this could be due to higher water content in the U10s (as Nancy suggested, a more moist scallop would take longer to cook the surface water off and get a nice sear), or as JI observed perhaps higher sugar content in the divers (sugar + protein = Maillard).

    what about age? Do you know how long the two batches of scallops have been out of the water? I’m wondering what accounts for the difference in (raw) color and texture. Maybe the area in which they’re grown (temperature, available nutrients, age, etc.) makes a difference as well.

  7. To be sure, the temperature has a large influence on flavor. Look at the oyster as its delicate flavor improves in colder climates and season. The lobster improves in the colder months and regions, as does the crab.

    The diver is hand harvested further off the coast in presumably colder waters, but also hand selected. The harvester will only select the largest of catch, thus a more intense character of flavor.

    I noticed a creamier profile, and color, however subtle. It was brought up that the dredged scallops were in sandy beds, and that was responsible for the ever so slight grittiness not found in the diver samples.

    As gav pointed out, the food supply would definitely be different five miles out (or greater) than on shorelines.

  8. DallasDude, according to JI:

    “diver scallops are in shallow water on rocky beds while the dredged scallops are further out, deeper water and sandy beds”

    this would suggest that the U10s are from colder water. And (from the picture) the divers don’t look dramatically different in size… not that it’s obvious to me why larger scallops would have a more intense flavor. I haven’t noticed this to be the case with other shellfish.

  9. Gavlist, from what I understand, the size isn’t the issue. The diver scallops are hand harvested from shallow water because the dredge boats can’t get to them. Also the scallops harvested on these boats don’t always go out and back on the same day (day boat scallops)So the hand harvested are pulled up and sold quickly. The boats have to go farther out to get volume and the scallops they harvest lie on the sandy ocean floor and filter sand.

  10. Besides “they are there to be picked by hand” the reason the diver-picked scallops are picked in shallower waters is that one can only dive to 120 feet without any special air mixes and gear. Then, you have the time it takes to surface from those depths beyond 120, so it would take much longer to do.

    It’s a shame that you did not get to taste a complete (diver) scallop — one with the yellow-orange fatty tissue that is attached to one side of the white flesh of every scallop. It is downright delicious. It’s removed from North America-bound scallops and shipped to Japan for the most part, where it is a raging delicacy.