Smoked fish is at once luxury food and humble staple, a special-occasion appetizer and default crowd-pleaser for brunch gatherings. It’s a coveted delicacy that people seem mostly content to take as-is. Consider the Jewish treatment, where it’s piled onto a platter — pink mounds of lox punctuated by toothpick-impaled olives and ice cream scoops of cream cheese, plus the ubiquitous fish carcass stuffed with whitefish salad — what you see is what you get.
“There’s something about smoked meat or fish — whether it’s pastrami or smoked salmon, I think humans have a love of savory flavors embedded in them,” says Yehuda Sichel, executive chef at Abe Fisher. “Growing up, two of my favorite things were whitefish salad and lox, and they were always a treat.”
Of course, when there’s a slice of cured salmon involved, a bagel or bagel-like substance is never too far away. Thus, the everything flatbread, everything crisp, everything bagel chip seems to reign supreme on brunch and appetizer menus. No one needs to reinvent this particular wheel, but the salty, oily foodstuff can also be more than a default sandwich filling.
Mike Stollenwerk breaks the mold at his restaurant Two Fish. A hot-smoked salmon (or cod) filet made in house (he also sells smoked fish at the Haddonfield Farmers’ Market and at the restaurant by call-ahead order) is layered over bright pickled vegetables, which are in turn set over a creamy poached egg vinaigrette. Of course, a bagel chip would not be out of place here, but the dish, with its salty-tangy-sweet contrasts, doesn’t need it.
Mackenzie Hilton of Time restaurant serves house-smoked salmon on herb- and oil-rubbed grilled slices of bread with a zesty pickle rémoulade. The capers and cornichons cut the richness of the fish, and a drop of sugar in the mayo-based spread offsets the salt. Hilton also uses smoked fish in place of bottarga or salted fish roe, adding very tiny flakes for a burst of briny flavor. In the restaurant, she uses only hot-smoked fish she makes herself.
“Most people don’t realize how easy it is to do — all you need is a charcoal grill and some wood chips, and you can get great flavor with much fewer nitrates than what you’d find at the store,” Hilton says.
Green salads, open-face sandwiches, scrambled eggs, even pasta dishes all welcome slivers and flakes of fish. Any kind of pickled vegetable (think carrots, cucumbers, radishes, shallots, beets), dill, hard or soft-boiled egg, horseradish, creamy dairy, and citrus fruit can complement the unctuous texture and salty flavor. Smoked fish can also be used in place of bacon — double-smoked salmon imitating bacon is a thing that exists in the world, or at least in markets these days — as in a carbonara pasta, quiche, corn chowder, sautéed greens, or over grits.
As far as smoked fish treats go, whitefish salad remains criminally underrated outside of the lox platter crowd. At La Peg, Peter Woolsey reimagines it with more elegant ingredients: crème fraîche, homemade mayonnaise with a touch of red wine vinegar, chopped capers, and lots and lots of herbs.
“I grew up in a half-Jewish household, and my deep love for Jewish deli includes smoked fish. But now that I’m married to a French woman and I’ve spent a lot of time in France, I wanted to bring a French sensibility to it,” he says.
At Abe Fisher, Sichel stuffs a whitefish salad riff — hot-smoked fish folded into cream cheese — into squash blossoms (when seasonal), which are then tempura fried. He’s also smoked lobster for a Jewish take on the lobster roll and packed a mix of smoked trout and striped bass into a whole trout carcass in a contemporary update of gefilte fish.
“The beauty of hot smoking is you can use the whole fish — whatever excess we have, we hot smoke and it turns into a spread on our breads and spreads platter,” he says. “We’ll save the cold smoking for really beautiful fish, like hamachi or salmon, because they essentially get preserved as-is.”
At Two Fish, Stollenwerk will use smoked tuna, lime juice, cilantro, jalapeño, and red onion as a Mexican-accented dip. Chef Brett Naylor, recently of Oyster House, goes a step further and thins bluefish with sour cream and buttermilk to make a dressing for salads and vegetables.
Smoked fish naturally pairs well with potatoes, and Stollenwerk will toss some in with a potato salad, either mustard- or mayonnaise-based. Oyster House’s smoked fish and potato cakes, which can be made with trout, mackerel, or any white fish, are extra-delicious with a poached or fried egg served on top.
Naylor is a huge fan of smoked fish at home because it’s shelf stable and easy to serve without much preparation. Mackerel is a favorite. When asked how he might enjoy that as a breakfast, he admits he has it as most of us would.
“Usually with cream cheese and on a bagel.”