Salmon is considered one of the best-for-you fish, though a lot of farm-raised stock gets poorer health reports. So if you’re like me, you’re always worrying about whether what you’re about to buy or eat has been screwed up by pollution or poor farming practices. When I first heard about a new type of sustainably raised salmon called Skuna Bay, I went searching and was glad to learn I now have another option at a bunch of gourmet Chicago restaurants.
I’ve now gotten to taste this “craft-raised” Skuna Bay salmon. Tried several creative dishes from Chef Michael Shrader at the new Urban Union restaurant, a trendy new restaurant on Taylor Street in Little Italy that’s focused on serving small plates, a focus unique in the area.
First we had the salmon seared and served with olive salsa, smoked paprika and lemon. Nice. Then we had it poached in duck fat and embellished with arugula, Ciabatta croutons, hard-cooked egg, red onion and red wine vinaigrette. Very nice. And last—but definitely not least—we ate it roasted straight from a wood-fired oven and served with wild mushrooms and whole grain mustard sauce, a combination that gave it a rich, complex flavor. In every dish the salmon had a delicate pink color and a texture that combined the best of farmed and wild—tender and sweet, with just the right amount of flakiness and not too much fat. The restaurant did an excellent job of pairing each course with selected wines. See **note below.
I also learned a little about how the salmon are raised—a kind-of-amazing story of tender, loving care—when I got to speak with one of the professional fish farmers. He said the fish are hatched in fresh-water incubators (remember how the salmon swim upstream out of the ocean to get back to their freshwater birthplace?) and delivered to the farm when they’re 5 inches long.
The baby fish are raised in roomy netted pens sitting in the glacier-fed waters off Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada, with conditions just like they’d have in the wild—fast Pacific Ocean currents, cold, clear water and the right salt level.
And here’s where the “craft” part of raising them comes in. The Skuna Bay farm is pretty isolated so the fish farmers have a unique lifestyle in which they actually live on the property for a week at a time so they can literally babysit the fish every day. Unlike with mechanized farming, the farmers watch how the fish act every day and let their behavior dictate how much to feed them that day—mussels and plankton mainly. They change the nets when they get dirty. And they alternate pens so the ocean has time to recover—just like a sustainable farmer moves his crops and his animals around on the land.
The farmer said overfeeding and having too many fish in a pen can create an oxygen debt in the ocean that’s not good for fish or water. So they have scuba divers who go down every day and check the temperature, the oxygen levels and the salinity of the water—the aim being to keep it blue and clear. For more information about natural versus farmed fish and use of resources, check out Dr. Ray Hilborn.
One of the big things with Skuna Bay is the speed and care with which they get the salmon into the customer’s hands. They have a proprietary multi-step grading process that results in only 6% of the fish farmed here meeting Skuna Bay standards. Most of the rest are still excellent fish and are sold as premium Atlantic salmon. The Skuna Bay specimens get royal treatment—thorough cleaning and expert prepping done entirely by the hands of one of their six trained technicians.
When the grading team has finished prepping three whole fish that meet the requirements, the salmon are then encased in a thick, double-layered recyclable box lined with special insulating materials. Fresh ice is applied within and around the fish, and the box is sealed and signed by the final inspector. Only the chef who orders it is then allowed to open that box, and that’s generally within 48 hours of the fish leaving the water.
Next time you’re in the mood for some delicious extra-premium “green-raised” salmon, go out and try it at one of the local multi-star fine dining restaurants listed below that now serve Skuna Bay salmon. You can call the Midwest distributor, Fortune Fish Company at 630.860.7100 for updates to this list.
- 312 Chicago
- Abigail’s American Bistro
- Atwood Café
- Aurora Country Club - Aurora
- Ceres' Table - www.cerestable.com
- City Gate Grill - Naperville
- Gibson’s Steakhouse Rush Street
- Guckenheimer Corporate Dining – serving Jenner and Block law offices
- Fish Bar – Chicago
- Hugo’s Frog-Bar – Naperville
- Maude’s Liquor Bar
- Park Ridge Country Club
- Parker’s Restaurant & Bar – Downer’s Grove
- Perennial Virant - www.perennialvirant.com
- Rosewood Restaurant
- Standard Market – Westmont
- Tavern at the Park
- Union League Club
- Vie Restaurant – Western Springs
If you’re on vacation or on your way to a business trip elsewhere in the region, you can get Skuna Bay salmon at these fine restaurants, too.
- Bacaro – Champaign, IL
- Blue Bay Fish and Seafood Market – Michigan
- Cork – Michigan
- Gamba’s Restorante - Indiana
- Goose the Market – Indianapolis
- Jolly Pumpkin – Ann Arbor, Michigan
- Plum Market Stores – Michigan
- Robert’s Seafood Market - Springfield
- Rustica – Kalamazoo, Michigan
- The Oceanaire Seafood Room - Indianapolis
- Town Tavern – Michigan
** Unfortunately, you won't find Skuna Bay salmon on the regular menu at Urban Union. The restaurant is new and hasn’t built up quite enough volume yet to make sense for the chef to regularly order the three-whole-fish minimum order.