Is a superb fish really different from a mediocre one? To find out, New York collected six cuts of fish—of varying quality, from various stores—and presented them to a panel of fish experts. We didn’t tell them where each was bought, or whether it was wild or farmed fish. In the first round, the judges examined the uncooked fillets of fish. In the second round, Esca chef David Pasternack lightly cooked the fish, with nothing but oil and a bit of salt and pepper, and the judges tasted them.
Jonathan Meyer, owner, Wild Edibles
Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, food editors, New York Magazine
David Pasternack, chef, Esca
New Zealand bass (bought at Citarella, $14.99 a pound)
Wild king salmon (Wild Edibles, $24.99 a pound)
Bluefish (Wild Edibles, $5.99 a pound)
Halibut (J De Martino, $10 a pound)
Wild Panama swordfish (Food Emporium, $15.99 a pound)
Farmed salmon (Food Emporium, $8.99 a pound)
Examining the Fish
Swordfish This comes under immediate and negative scrutiny. Patronite: “That swordfish looks scary.” Pasternack and Meyer both point to the flat, juiceless quality of the flesh, and its dark-brown bloodlines, an obvious sign of age and bad handling. Pasternack: “It’s an ugly bloodline—a sign of a lesser-quality fish.”
Halibut This fares nearly as badly. Patronite: “It looks like it’s been around for a long time.” Meyer agrees: “It’s not a great cut.” Pasternack suspects it’s been sitting on ice for too long and began to absorb water, rendering the flesh suspiciously soft. “That one looks terrible,” he says.
Farmed Salmon This comes off only slightly better. Meyer: “It’s probably a Chilean farmed salmon.” Pasternack agrees that it’s farmed, but disapproves: “I never like farmed salmon. I don’t like the smell of it. It smells like feed and fat.”
New Zealand Bass Meyer thinks it looks reasonably good, but adds, “None of this stuff so far is really so nice.” Pasternack remains hard to please. Using finger and thumb, he picks out a piece of skin still attached to the surface of the bass: “Look at the crap on this. The guy didn’t take any effort to clean the fish up nice! If you were serving this to your guests, you don’t leave a piece of white skin on here.”
Wild King Salmon Everyone perks up. Meyer decides the fish was definitely wild, because it is ruby red and its lines of fat are thin. The fish is quite fresh, he adds, because there are no runs in the flesh where the pin bones have been removed: “That means it’s still a little bit tight.” (Given that he didn’t know the fish came from his store, it’s unlikely he was faking it.) Pasternack agrees it looks “lean,” but thinks the fish is less than perfectly fresh. He runs his fingers across the surface: “It feels tacky, sticky, instead of smooth and slick.” Bluefish This comes out on top. Pasternack: “That’s the best piece of fish here. Basically, just looking at it, it looks fresh.” An impressive declaration, given that he’s shown himself to be the most difficult-to-please judge.
Eating the Fish
Swordfish Once again, the swordfish ranks at the absolute bottom. Meyer looks aghast after his first bite: “That’s not edible, that fish. That has soured.” He grabs a glass of water to drink. “You need a biohazard box for this.” Patronite calls it “weird and grisly and chewy.” After Pasternack’s warning, Raisfeld abstains.
Halibut Again, this is a close second-worst. Raisfeld: “A kind of bad aftertaste.” Pasternack agrees: “It’s a little funky up front.”
Farmed Salmon At best, this is inoffensive. “Bland,” Patronite decides. Others are unsparing. Meyer: “That’s close to awful. I’ve got a tingling in my mouth.”
New Zealand Bass “Not bad,” Meyer proclaims. Patronite is more effusive: “It’s pretty good. It seems fresh. It seems to flake nicely. This is a lot firmer than the others.” Meyer: “It’s probably one of the farmed blue-nose basses.”
Wild King Salmon Pasternack is now fully convinced it’s genuinely wild salmon, because he gets a few tiny bones in his mouthful. A wild fish is well exercised from swimming the ocean, and develops “a very funny bone structure, and you can’t always pick the pin bones out.” It also does not have any of the farmed-fish smell he dreads: “This one smells totally different.” Patronite agrees: “It’s a lot richer, more buttery.”
Bluefish This fish continues to stay on top. Bluefish often has a deep mackerel-like flavor, and can verge on being too oily; this one avoids that pitfall. Patronite: “I like it. It tastes fresh, the way bluefish should taste.” Pasternack approves: “This is a very mild bluefish.”