Last Tuesday the Snooty Foodie attended the awesome idea for a dinner at Campo Modern Country Bistro. We’re running behind on getting the report up, but sometimes being late is better than not at all. Apologies to all concerned. John Alexis from TJ’s wrote about the Total Catch project in January. He was so inspired he helped organize a dinner to promote the movement. Hungry for grouper brains? Read on.
The stars seemingly aligned Tuesday night amidst a torrential down pour. We had a cool, envelope-pushing chef cooking up some seriously unheard of fish at a bustling new spot in the culinary capital of Dallas.
The cliff notes on the Total Catch project is this: Let’s say a fisherman in the gulf is out trying to catch red snapper for his restaurant customers. He tugs on the line and pulls his catch aboard only to find himself staring at a beard fish or (heaven forbid) a scorpion fish. He throws it back and that little fishy has, at best, a 50/50 shot of making it. That’s the common practice since these guys can’t sell a scorpion fish to their customers. Incredible waste of a gazillion pounds of fresh fish, huh? So, two heroes start a service that finds a home for these under-marketed and under-appreciated fish. Take that Captain Nemo!
Enter Jon Alexis, head tuna at TJ’s Seafood Market, seafood freak, and frequent (jonfromtjs) poster on SideDish. Once he learned about the Total Catch market, he started buying these random fish and selling them at TJ’s. Not only did he want to support the cause, he wanted to educate his customers on these unheralded creatures from the sea. (John, please jump in and give more detail on your efforts and maybe more description on the fish we ate) Random thought: did you know there are almost 1,500 different species of fish in the Gulf of Mexico? And we see, what, maybe a half dozen different species on restaurant menus? Try something besides ahi tartare and blackened redfish people!
Now, bring in the Total Catch dudes and Jon from TJ’s to Campo Modern Country Bistro in the OC where Chef Matt McCallister fires up the burners in the kitchen. Seven courses for $50! Absolute no brainer.
As anyone who is paying even remotely close attention to the Dallas dining scene knows, Chef McCallister has been tattooed with the label of being the guy that challenges his diners and slices and dices on the culinary edge with every plate he sends out of the kitchen. We were very excited to see what he could do with a kettle full of B-team fish. On to the food…
The Raw Course was a Piggy Perch Ceviche with a streak of very intense chile, dried olives and something called onion ash. The ceviche was nice enough though a little chewier than I like my raw fish. The chile had great spice but it honestly overpowered pretty much everything on the plate. Still, it was the best damn piggy perch ceviche I’ve ever had!
Course 2 was a steamed barrel fish in a vegetable broth with (I didn’t count but the menu said) six diced vegetables. This was pretty disappointing. I get that you’re cooking a tasting menu for 50 or so people but there’s no good excuse for luke warm broth IMO. Pretty much killed the whole dish.
Fried Sand Trout was spectacular. This little guy was fried whole and sat on satsuma preserves with a dot of garlic mustard on each side and a little limey micro herb called oxalis. We just picked him up and smeared a bit of preserves and mustard in every bite. Really special.
The poached course, as we found out later, had the advertised mackerel, blue runner, and blue fish but also some grouper brains that made up the “dirty” farro. Chef Matt told us mid-bite about the grouper but that didn’t slow us down a bit. Very, very flavorful. Definitely something I’d order again.
The roasted course was a whole fish presentation served family style with each table getting a different fish. Our table had the beard fish and it was better than any beard I know. Texture wise I would liken it to yellowtail. I thumb wrestled my table mates for both the left and right cheek and there were simply sublime. A stock pot was passed around to ladle some broth over the fish. It had tiny chunks of house cured chorizo and English peas in it. It was fine though kinda unnecessary and I really don’t know why the peas were in there. They were hard as a rock and didn’t really seem to fit.
The seared feature was Queen Snapper along with some charred kale (yum!) and fish sauce with caramel. This was probably my favorite course of the evening. The hunk of snapper was seared to a crust on one side but the middle was moist and flaky. The kale and the fish sauce caramel pairing was off the charts good.
I was honestly full to the gills at this point, but we finished the meal with some pound cake with lemon curd and smoked huckleberries. The huckleberries were interesting and the pound cake was, well, pound cake.
Overall this was a great idea and experience. Who knows, we could’ve eaten the next Chilean Sea Bass ?! Kudos to these guys for saving the lives of these odd-man-out fish while also giving these boat captains another revenue stream for their catch. Let’s give a golf clap to John from TJ’s too who is as passionate about fish as anyone not named Aqua Man. And, of course, Chef Matt and the Campo team deserve a shout out as well. This was our first trip there and even though Matt’s apparently bolting soon to open his own resty in the design district, it definitely seems like the crew is in place to maintain the early success they’ve had. Thanks to all for a great evening!