Rob Clark wasn’t deep-frying ling cod at The Fish Counter this week. He was in Ottawa serving tuna tataki to parliamentarians while drumming up support for a motion to designate March 18 as an annual National Sustainable Seafood Day in Canada.
This wasn’t Mr. Clark’s first rally with non-profit organizations and celebrity seafoodies. Although he was the long-time executive chef for the Kambolis Restaurant Group, including C Restaurant, he has been at the forefront of the sustainable seafood movement for just as many years. He was the first chef in Vancouver to take sockeye salmon off his menu, and pushed hard to create a local market for spot prawns.
He and marine biologist Mike McDermid co-founded the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program. The latter was its manager until last year. It wasn’t a huge leap when they became business partners behind The Fish Counter, a sustainable seafood shop and casual café that opened in December.
But because of the chef’s haute history at the fine-dining C, customers keep calling to make reservations.
Ha. To call The Fish Counter a café is actually an exaggeration. The kitchen side boasts a few wooden benches and a window ledge. There is one tiny table, wedged in a corner under the chalkboard menu. The cash register and freezers that straddle the centre of the room are all on caster wheels, so they can be rolled away for future cooking classes or chef dinners. There will be a small sidewalk patio come summer.
But for now, it’s really just a take-out counter with recycled wooden utensils. If you choose to dine in, you’ll have to balance the food trays on your lap.
The food, although simple, is very good. Fish and chips ($6 to $18, depending on the type of fish and number of pieces) are robed in a crisp R&B micro-brewed beer batter. There is also a gluten-free batter. Ian Johansen, who cooked at False Creek’s Go Fish for nine years, has joined Mr. Clark beside the fryers. The fish is similarly fried in clean oil and has an airy lightness.
The fish (halibut, wild salmon, ling cod, Pacific cod and Sawmill Bay beach oysters) is served with deeply golden, medium-girth Kennebec fries, a creamy house-made tartar bursting with fresh tarragon and brightly dressed cabbage-and-kale coleslaw.
Crispy cod tacos ($5.95 each) use the same batter. But because the pieces are smaller, the cod has twice as much crunch. The fish is laid over two small corn tortillas made by Brenda Rodriguez, who formerly ran Dona Cata Mexican restaurant on Victoria Drive, with a zesty roasted corn, red pepper, mango and lime juice salsa. This is a definite lip-smacker.
Wild harvested salmonitos ($8.10 or $10 with fries) wrap grilled pink salmon in a large flour tortilla stuffed with marinated cabbage, onion, lime, cilantro, mayonnaise and a hint of chipotle for subtle spice and backbone. It’s a richly creamy yet brightly tangy finger-licking drippy mess.
The oyster po’boy ($8.10) is the most chef-driven dish on the regular menu. It’s a big, messy, hungry-man baguette sandwich. But the funky cabbage kimchi gives it an unusual twist and the horseradish-wasabi mayonnaise has a silky, buttery mouth feel.
When Mr. Clark is in town, which is almost all of the time, he offers more extravagant daily specials, such as lobster cannelloni and bouillabaisse. You can also grab a crab cake from the cooler and have the kitchen grill it or indulge in freshly shucked oysters properly stored on ice, not in water. Mr. McDermid oversees the shop side, which features only seasonal, sustainable, mostly local fish and shellfish. He has humpback shrimp, but no tiger prawns. He still has Qualicum scallops, although the prices will likely skyrocket given that the hatchery was recently devastated by high-acid water.
The shop will be selling halibut this weekend, but didn’t last week because the fish is unreliable when frozen. There’s a live tank for Dungeness crab and sustainable Atlantic lobster, plus a frozen department with smoked salmon, spot prawns, albacore tuna, salmon rillettes and other goodies.
The coolers are stocked with smoked oysters, Northern Divine caviar, house-made salsas, aioli, soups and stocks in glass mason jars. And on the dry-good shelves, you’ll find Fish Counter flour batter, Vancouver Island Salt Co. salts and fresh brewed malt vinegar, a rarity these days, from Spinnakers in Victoria.
The Fish Counter is great little shop. But I’m not sure if I’d schlep all the way across town to dine there or buy fish. That’s perfectly okay, Mr. McDermid says. The shop was designed to serve its immediate community. That’s an integral part of its sustainable ethos.
Remember when every neighbourhood had a fishmonger? When I was a child, I used to tag along with my dad on Saturday mornings. We’d go to our local fish shop right after visiting the butcher.
Boutique butcher shops have flourished in Vancouver over the past few years. But the fish shops are lagging behind. There’s the Daily Catch on Commercial Drive, which just last week opened a second location in the West End, and a cluster on Granville Island. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a Fish Counter in every neighbourhood?
Editor's note: The Fish Counter's address is 3825 Main St. An earlier version of this review gave an incorrect address.