Pity the jolthead porgy. Related to the grunt, it is among the many oddly named fish that, like awkward schoolchildren hoping to get picked for the dodgeball team, watches as its glamorous cousins such as grouper are selected for discerning customers at top restaurants.
But that's not how it works at Carolina Crossroads, the elegant dining room of the historic Carolina Inn at Chapel Hill. Though Chef James Clark has been cooking there less than a year, he has established a reputation for seeking out lesser-known but equally delicious and sustainable varieties that fishermen pull from the waters of the Carolina coast.
"My favorite is line-caught scorpion fish. They've got this hideous face with knobs," he says, demonstrating with a waggle of his large hands near his ears. "Most people won't give them a second glance, but I'm telling you, it's the best–tasting fish in the world."
Like most of the seafood Clark fixes in battered, nonstick pans in the restaurant's large kitchen, scorpion fish—when he's lucky enough to find some—get a slow sauté in light oil and are finished with a scoop of butter. "It cooks like oysters with this sweet cucumber flavor," Clark says with a dreamy look and a quick pursing of his lips, as if to catch the last drop of the memory's succulence. "Really, if you ever see it on a menu or in a market, you must try it."
It takes a brave man to sell fish with funky names to the affluent diners who frequent Carolina Crossroads, but Clark backs up his bravado by preparing unfamiliar eats in classic combinations. The jolthead porgy, for example, is finished in browned butter and served atop a generous smear of celery root purée. Clark adds an aromatic sauté of asparagus and oyster mushrooms, then garnishes the dish with a pearly dab of caramelized onion vinaigrette.
"People won't necessarily drive here thinking, 'Ooh, I hope they have jolthead porgy tonight,'" he says, wiping the edge of the plate to enhance its presentation. "But I don't think anyone who really enjoys fish would mind being served this."
The day Clark drove to Chapel Hill from Myrtle Beach for his cooking interview, he brought jolthead porgy, triggerfish and lane snapper—all procured from Wayne Mershon at Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet, S.C. He had 11 hours to prepare seven dishes for eight people. Among them was a flight of ceviches, though he grew uncertain as to whether a trio of lime-cured raw fish was a smart idea.
"Thank god, it was their favorite course," Clark recalls. "It really built my confidence. I want to use underutilized fish every day. That's my shtick."
He now orders fish through Dock to Door Seafood of Chapel Hill, a wholesale distributor that provides the catch of the day to several top local restaurants. For those wanting to incorporate more under-appreciated fish at home, he recommends developing a relationship with an independent fishmonger or shopping at a well-stocked market with knowledgeable staff.
"The most important consideration when buying any type of fish is freshness," Clark says, urging customers to ask questions and even request a sniff before committing to a purchase. "These are people who genuinely care about what they're doing, and they'll be honest. When you understand more about fish, you're more likely to buy it often."
Inland markets and fine dining establishments are increasingly offering varieties that only a few years ago were considered unsellable outside of the coastal communities where they were caught. This includes versatile triggerfish, which award-winning cookbook author James Peterson heartily recommends ("snatch it up right away") in his encyclopedic Fish & Shellfish; red drum (think of Paul Prudhomme's once-ubiquitous blackened red fish); amberjack; and sustainable varieties of snapper.
Clark recently used rose-spotted snapper to demonstrate a dish for INDY Week. After seasoning lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper, he says to always start cooking "presentation side" down—which in his book means skin-side down. Clark does not slash the thin skin of the snapper, though doing so with other fish may help to prevent it from curling while cooking. Instead, he lightly presses down on the flesh with a wide spoon to keep it flat.
"Please, don't fry a beautiful piece of fish like this," Clark implores as he angles the pan to quickly scoop up foaming butter for basting. "You want to cook slowly on medium heat, which will give you crisp skin and moist flesh. No one wants to eat rubbery fish."
Clark finely minces some boiled ramps and red onion, which he then cooks over a low flame in a small skillet. He dramatically pours in a glug of anise-flavored Pernod to flambé the ingredients, plunking in a great scoop of butter as the flames subside. Noticing how observers were agog at the amount of butter and booze, Clark chuckles. "It's not healthy to eat like this every day," he concedes, "but it's good and it's good for you."
Served on a base of stone-ground grits, the sauced snapper looked a lot like a T-bone. "It's true of a lot of fish," he says. "If you were blindfolded and touched cooked triggerfish, you'd swear it was filet mignon. If I could get more people who eat steak and pork and chicken to just try fish, I know I'd sell a whole lot more of it."
Customers who appreciate his finesse with fish already have forced Clark to make big changes in the way he orders supplies. When he took over the kitchen, fish dishes accounted for about 25 percent of dinner sales. Today, it's about 55 percent.
So how does one sell a grunt to a first-timer? "Some people see these fish on the menu and think they've walked into Iron Chef, but it's not like that," Clark says. "It's all about educating your wait staff. Once they've tasted it, trust me, it's an easy sell."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sea oddities."