March 22, 2011
Monday postscript: Cafe Americain, seafood and the Watch List

Seafood watch.bmpOne of the great things about getting feedback from readers via email is that it reminds me that many of them are passionate about food and demanding about the issues related to food.

But how much politics do you want with your restaurant reviews? That is a question I think about often, and I have yet to come up with the right formula to please everyone.

Yes, I try to weigh in on the local/sustainable trend from time to time. I tend to emphasize the importance of where the food comes from and what happens on the way from the farm to your plate.

On more than one occasion, I have struggled with how I should approach the issues surrounding seafood - specifically, the concerns about overfishing. As many serious restaurant-goers know, the Monterey Bay Aquarium keeps a list called Seafood Watch, in which it provides a rundown of best choices, alternatives and fish to avoid. The "avoid" list includes farmed salmon, orange roughy, imported (wild) caviar, and Chilean sea bass.

Should The Bee's restaurant reviews tell readers when a restaurant is serving fish on Seafood Watch's "avoid" list. Or should we not say anything, since serving the fish is still legal?

After my review Sunday of Café Americain, which serves swordfish, I received an email that challenged me about my silence on the issue.

"I have on occasion been distressed when you mention a dish made with an endangered species, and make no comment about this.

You are in a unique and privileged position to make a difference-to potentially save those ocean species on the brink of extinction. If you were to comment on use of these fish at restaurants, I think they would think twice before ordering these fish.

As I'm sure you know, Swordfish is one of these species, yet you mention it in your article on Cafe American without any comment. In making some notice in your reviews when an endangered fish is served at the restaurants you review, I would doubt that these restaurants would continue to offer these fish, and this would hopefully generate pressure on other restaurants to do the same.

You may be struggling with this issue-is it your role to mix commentary on this issue with your reviews, or should they be kept separate? Yet, I believe we all need to take a stand. I do this by not ordering endangered species, and always asking the server to mention to the chef that they should consider taking endangered species off their menus. A stand by you would be much more meaning and powerful.

Are you willing to take that leap?"

The answer is simple: yes I am. I don't want to be overly preachy or political about food if I can avoid it, because I know my readers are very diverse and have a wide range of political views. But I do think these readers want to know the facts. If I can tell them that a fish is on the "avoid" list, they will be able to make a more informed decision about how they wish to dine.

The swordfish issue our email correspondent mentions is actually more complicated than I had imagined. According to the Seafood Watch pocket guide (download it at, eating swordfish is acceptable if it is caught using approved methods within U.S. waters, but it makes the "avoid" list if imported. Caviar is actually on the list, too. As many caviar aficionados are aware, unregulated fishing in the Caspian Sea after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to a crisis with sturgeon. As I noted in my review, Café Americain serves very fine farmed caviar.

Still, I could be clearer about this issue in the future and I will make an effort to do so with the reviews from now on.

By the way, Seafood Watch is now gadget-friendly. As Al Pierleoni noted in a recent post, you can get it in "app" form via the Android app store at

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