A seafood tower is the quintessential summer dish – fresh, chilled, impressive to behold and great for sharing.
Here in Vancouver, these ubiquitous spreads look so deceptively easy – steam, shuck, plop on ice – we sometimes take them for granted. Or, because they are often so expensive, dismiss them as boring tourist bait.
Not all seafood platters are created equal. The great ones require a great deal of prep work and thought. The ocean bounty must obviously be impeccably fresh, but also, preferably, local and sustainable. There should be a balance of raw, simply cooked and more elaborately dressed components. A variety of well-made sauces and garnishes keeps things interesting.
It helps to have a few surprises tucked around the tiers, although the classic elements never go out of style. For some, a seafood platter isn’t really a seafood platter without shrimp cocktail. That said, even the poaching liquid can make the difference between a plump and crunchy or soft and stringy prawn.
After searching high and low for interesting seafood platters that won’t break the bank ($70 or less), I found three outstanding showpieces that make a sumptuous meal for two. All you need to do is add wine and get cracking.
Blue Water Café
1095 Hamilton St., Vancouver, 604-688-8078
Shellfish plateau, $28
What’s included: Three Kusshi oysters, three Selva prawns, three Totten Inlet mussels, three Manila clams, scallop ceviche, jellyfish salad.
I almost shrugged off this upscale Yaletown restaurant, assuming its legendary seafood tower would be too expensive. Lo and behold, it also offers a petite, single-tier version (for about three years now) that is not only excellent value, but also includes one of the most daringly delicious components all around – a crunchy jellyfish salad with imitation shark fin (transparent floss made from tapioca starch) tossed in a darkly delicious kombu-soy-and-sesame-oil dressing.
The mussels (firm, good mouth size) and clams (small and chewy) were both fine quality and simply steamed in a classic European style.
Kusshi oysters are the West Coast crème de la crème, so it’s impressive to see them showcased on an entry-level platter. However, they are not at their peak in summer and these were milky inside. Mind you, the mignonette – flecked with lemongrass and finished with fresh thyme – is one of the best in town.
Selva prawns poached in court bouillon were a tad watery, but again backed up by an excellent cocktail sauce anchored with Worcestershire.
Scallop ceviche was spanking fresh and fruity, delicately diced, lightly marinated to a silken texture and balanced with pink grapefruit that is neither too sweet nor too sour, although it could have used a pinch more salt for brightness.
But that jellyfish salad – wow. It’s not local. The jaw-working chew might not appeal to everyone. And the flavour is entirely dependent on the dressing. But jellyfish is so Asian and true to the Vancouver palate, yet rarely seen in Western restaurants. And let’s not forget, it’s one of the most sustainable species in the ocean. Bravo to Blue Water Café for highlighting it.
Coquille Fine Seafood
181 Carrall St., Vancouver, 604-559-6009
Sailor’s platter, $59.95
What’s included: Eight oysters (West and East Coast), four Salish mussels, four scallops (various varieties), four Gulf White shrimp, two Berezan shrimp, Alaskan King Crab leg, tuna tartare.
After opening to a slightly unwieldy and shaky start last year, this Gastown seafood restaurant (a more casual sibling to L’Abattoir) has pared down the menu, sharpened its focus and pivoted in a more classic direction. The popular seafood platters are great value, full of tasty surprises and offer a little something (actually, quite a lot) for everyone.
Coquille certainly doesn’t skimp on the oysters. Four delicate Beausoleils from New Brunswick and four salty, deep-cupped local Sun Seekers made for an interesting contrast.
The mussels really stand out with a light smoke, while spicy tuna in tomato concassé with puffed rice is bright and textural.
Big, meaty Littleneck clams are cut in half then placed back in the shell with a good, grassy olive oil and smear of salsa verde. The kitchen could have taken a bit more care with an Alaskan King leg, which was split in two generous portions and smothered in a creamy Marie Rose sauce. The meat stuck to the shell and took some poking to extract.
Gulf White shrimp (wild from the Pacific) were perfectly poached and bouncy. However, the Berezan (farmed in Langley) needed more than just a light cure and hit of house-made hot sauce. This is a great local, sustainable product. Everyone wants to support it. But the texture is slimy and sinewy. They should never be served nearly raw. They need to be cooked.
Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar
845 Burrard St., Vancouver, 604-642-2900
Seafood tower for two, $68
What’s included: Six oysters (West and East Coast); six Gulf White shrimp, six Salish mussels, a half-pound of snow crab, albacore tuna tataki, mussels escabèche, Dungeness crab louie
Wow. Wow. Wow. If you want to treat yourself or impress someone, look no further than this majestically plated (the only tiered tower at this price point) smorgasbord of impeccably prepared seafood. This really is the very best tower in Vancouver for both value and flavour.
The only component that fell short was the Kusshi oysters – again too milky. In general, I try to avoid our more delicate oysters at this time of year.
My first bite was the shrimp and it just blew me away with its bounce. The kitchen adds a splash of vinegar to the court bouillon poaching broth, which firms them up nice and crunchy – almost like the shrimp in a har gow dumpling. As with all steamed mussels and snow crab, they are tossed in lemon vinaigrette before serving. This one little step adds such incredible vibrancy and makes a world of difference.
The prepared dishes are all excellent: lightly seared tuna tataki in citrus yuzu and sweet ponzu; a complexly layered mussels escabèche simmered in its own seasoned liquors; a classic and creamy Dungeness Crab Louie salad made with fresh bibb lettuce and a show-stopping side-striped prawn in rhubarb leche de tigre with a charred-jalapeno aguachile.