When Flavor is only Skin Deep
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As a child of the ’90s, I grew up watching and loving the sitcom “Friends.” I still catch the reruns now and then, and recently rewatched one of my favorite episodes: “The One with Unagi,” when Ross urges Rachel and Phoebe to master the Japanese concept of awareness when practicing self-defense — a skill he mistakenly calls “unagi.”
Recognizing that he is misusing the term, the ladies point out to Ross that unagi is actually fresh water eel, a popular sushi ingredient, and proceed to taunt him by expressing their hankerings for sushi. Rachel even jokes that the concept is actually called “salmon skin roll,” and that she could really go for one right about now.
It doesn’t take much to get me in the mood for salmon, and I have to say I agree with Rachel on this one. Salmon skin in particular is an underappreciated part of the fish that many diners choose to skip, but when enjoying high-quality salmon — it’s commonly held that wild is preferred to farmed — the skin actually offers flavorful rewards.
Let’s check it out:
PUTTING SALMON SKIN ON STAGE
While I love a good salmon skin roll, I decided it was time to try it outside of the realm of sushi. One of the best places to do just that is Stage Restaurant, where executive chef Ron de Guzman does this ingredient justice.
In his dinner entree, Crispy Skin Salmon ($33), a fine fillet of New Zealand King salmon prepared skin-on and placed on a bed of leek puree. De Guzman cooks it “low and slow” to achieve a nice, crispy skin without drying out the meat, or conversely, burning the top.
“There’s a lot of healthy oils in salmon, and it’s all in the skin,” explains de Guzman. “It’s a fattier fish so the skin crisps really well.”
One of the reasons de Guzman enjoys working with salmon in the kitchen is that it reminds him of some of his favorite foods. He compares the fattiness of the salmon to that of ribeye, which is why he chooses to add horseradish — a classic accompaniment to succulent meat — to this luxurious dish. As for the crispy skin, he explains, “I’m Filipino, and we like our chicharon, which is fried pork rind, so to me, (the salmon skin) emulates that a little bit.”
He notes that the skin’s moisture makes for juicier salmon meat when the two are cooked together.
You’ll notice the dish’s sides are like picturesque garnishes too pretty to eat, but remember that they’re actually carefully crafted to complement the flavors of the fish. In addition to Alii mushrooms, Ho Farms baby carrots and tomatoes add acidity, while a modern molecular-gastronomic touch of powdered bacon is used as an accenting flavor.
Seeing as Stage brings a delicious spark of drama to every dining performance, one bite of Crispy Skin Salmon surely will call for a hana hou. De Guzman, a culinary artist of contemporary Asian-American cuisine, also encourages readers to stay tuned for a menu change during the holidays.
Stage Restaurant Honolulu Design Center, second floor
1250 Kapiolani Blvd., Honolulu
SAVE ROOM FOR SAKURA
When lightly breaded and deep fried, salmon skin goes from tasty to drool-worthy. At Sakura Terrace Japanese Cafe, bite-sized slices of Atlantic salmon skin are dunked into the deep fryer for a crunchy munch that is full of salmon flavor without being too oily, thanks to the wheat-flour coating.
These heavenly salmon skin chips are the main ingredient in Salmon Skin Salad ($10), which serves as a great starter to share, or even a light entree for one.
According to executive chef Takayuki Sekine, the rich salmon is balanced out with refreshing bursts of romaine lettuce and shredded daikon and carrot, not to mention a zing of red onion. But what really brings all the flavors together in this bonito-speckled salad is Sekine’s special ponzu dressing, which features lemon peel to play up the citrus flavors that naturally pair so well with salmon.
At the tranquil Japanese restaurant, Salmon Skin Salad is a great precursor to the monthly special for October($32). The elegant gozen-style set meal offers seasonal ingredients from Japan, including Japanese eggplant in an appetizer plate with apple, kiwi and mustard yuzu miso sauce, as well as enoki and shimeji mushrooms served with deep-fried tofu and butter fish slathered in an autumn farm-vegetable sauce.
The monthly special also highlights a range of seafood, from a sashimi plate with blackened cured mackerel and locally caught ahi and marlin, to Hokkaido-sourced hokke, a popular fish enjoyed in Northern Japan during the winter months.
As the perfect finishing touch for this autumn-inspired feast, the chef recommends a cold glass of dry sake. Sakura Terrace has quite the collection, but for these flavors, only Dassai 50 ($12 per glass) from the Yamaguchi prefecture will do.
It is from the Junmai Daiginjo category of sakes, which is considered to be the best of the best.
Sakura Terrace Japanese Cafe
1240 S. King St., Honolulu