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Head chef Sam Benedetto of Sooke Harbour House puts on the finishing touches on his seafood bowl full of Otter Point gooseneck barnacles, Dungeness crab and local oysters. (Andrei Fedorov)
Head chef Sam Benedetto of Sooke Harbour House puts on the finishing touches on his seafood bowl full of Otter Point gooseneck barnacles, Dungeness crab and local oysters. (Andrei Fedorov)

Seafood showdown: B.C.

The West and East coasts battle it out for seafood supremacy Add to ...

Would the Grand Banks cod fishery have collapsed if Atlantic Canada had Captain James T. Kirk on its side? William Shatner is the latest celebrity - come on down David Suzuki - to stand up for British Columbia's wild sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, the state of which is currently being investigated by a federal judicial inquiry.

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Even in times of crisis, West Coast seafood is sexy.

As much as we worry about our beloved sockeye - and worry deeply we do (the commission reports it has received more applications from interested parties than any other federal inquiry) - salmon is merely a small appetizer in the gargantuan feast provided by the Pacific Ocean.

What makes West Coast seafood the best in Canada is its glorious, abundant, delicious diversity. Yes, we have salmon - and so much more.

Spot prawns are massive yet delicate and surprisingly sweet. With their distinctive white spots, they are one of B.C.'s tastiest ocean treasures. Now in season, you can buy them live off a boat at Vancouver's False Creek Fishermen's Wharf for only $12 a pound.

Don't feel like mucking with shells? Try them raw at one of the city's better sushi bars - the Raw Bar at Blue Water Café ( www.bluewatercafe.net) will definitely have them - where the plump bodies are snuggled against fluffy lozenges of rice and served alongside their lightly battered, deep-fried heads, which are scrumptiously crunchy to the last beady black eyeball. The glistening white meat is firm at first bite and then melts on the tongue.

If salmon is king of the Pacific Northwest, halibut is its rightful queen. The dense, firm, snow-white flesh of this flat-bodied flounder is mild, clean and wondrously versatile. Baked, broiled, pan-fried or braised, there's no way to go wrong with halibut. From March to December, any self-respecting restaurant in B.C. will serve it. But some of the most interesting variations can be found at these three fun, casual venues.

In Vancouver, the best place for seafood - bar none - is Go Fish, a corrugated tin takeout shack at the edge of Fishermen's Wharf ( www.bin941. com). Go for the halibut deep-fried in crispy beer batter with hand-cut Kennebec chips or lightly grilled and piled high on a huge bed of microgreens (being sure to save room for an oyster po'boy or salmon tacone).

Victoria's Red Fish, Blue Fish is a similarly delicious concept, nestled amongst cargo containers at the downtown docks ( www.redfish-bluefish.com). The spicy fish poutine - a scrumptious blend of halibut, tuna, cod and salmon smothered in chipotle mayo sauce on a hot mound of pepper-flaked fries - will make Quebeckers cry with envy.

But for the absolute best fish tacos this side of Mexico you'll have travel to the end of the world, to Tofino's Sobo Restaurant ( www.sobo.ca) on the western edge of Vancouver Island. Originally served out of a purple truck on the side of the road, these Killer Fish Tacos - diced halibut and salmon, lightly pan-fried with red onions and chipotles, tucked into a blue-corn tortilla with seasonal fruit salsa - have become so famous, chef Lisa Ahier had to move into a proper restaurant with walls.

When it comes to oysters, one small slurp of delicate, deep-cup, world-renown Kusshi oysters - with their buttery smooth texture and crisp, clean, mildly fruity finish - and you'll never settle for a floppy P.E.I. Malpeque again. The best place to enjoy them right now is at the Comox Valley Shellfish Festival June 19-20 ( www.comoxvalleyshellfishfestival.ca), on the edge of Baynes Sound. Come winter, when the regional bivalves are fattest and juiciest, dig into a platter of raw, freshly shucked, cold-water beauties at Locals Restaurant in nearby Courtenay ( www.localscomoxvalley.com).

Snow crabs are nice. Pity they have a short season. You can't help but feel sorry for Maritimers when you live in B.C., where our delectable Dungeness crabs are available all year round. (Read it and weep, Nova Scotia.) The most delicious Dungeness crab dish ever invented is the kabocha pumpkin hotpot at Richmond's Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant (604-232-0816). At this modern Cantonese restaurant, the chef takes a whole crab and fries it with fermented black beans and slightly steamed cubes of Japanese squash. The pot is delivered to the table and simmered on top of a butane burner until it all melts around the crab in a sweet, briny, sumptuously sticky mess.

This list doesn't even begin to plumb the depths of the Pacific. If we had more space, you'd be salivating for hours as we cracked into creamy red sea urchin, slurped on fat honey mussels, marvelled over the velvety richness of sablefish, nibbled on Qualicum Bay scallop tartare, gorged on incredibly affordable fresh Alaskan king crab legs and dipped crunchy morsels of geoduck sashimi in salty soy sauce. And the best part? It's all sustainable.

Alexandra Gill is The Globe and Mail's West Coast restaurant critic.

Follow on Twitter: @lexxgill

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