Adventurous seafood fans are discovering octopus all over again. Long a staple at sushi bars, respected eateries all over the county have been adding novel dishes to their menus that prominently feature the many-armed mollusks.
Once you get past the idea of eating tentacles, octopus is a nice, meaty mouthful. It holds up to different flavors while still being healthy and light — a perfect summer dish.
Local restaurateurs like Matt Gordon (who owns and operates Urban Solace, Sea & Smoke, Solace and the Moonlight Lounge) says there are a few reasons why octopus is suddenly showing up on San Diego menus.
“It's a product that is often local from Baja … though supplies are tight right now,” he says by email. “It's generally less expensive than other popular fish, and it seems that more people are willing to try it lately as higher-end chefs have made it popular.”
Gordon also says it’s a key part to the Baja-Med movement that is influencing the local cuisine.
The increasing ubiquity of octopus is exciting to Donald Lockhart of Cusp in La Jolla.
“People are getting more adventurous when they go out to dinner. They’re much more willing to step outside their comfort zone and try something intriguing even if they’ve never heard of it or had it before,” he says. “That’s exciting for chefs, because we have the opportunity to push our creativity and work with challenging ingredients that show our skill.”
Michael Nogera, executive chef at the Del Mar Highlands location of Davanti Enoteca, says the texture and flavor of octopus has no match.
“Octopus has a unique texture that only octopus can bring to the table and it is also very easy to use in many different applications,” Nogera says, who says braising is the best way to prepare octopus.
“First we braise it in red wine and wine corks, we then sear it on the flat top and serve it over a warm potato salad with celery root, finocchiona, and horseradish aioli,” he says.
Bertrand Hug, who runs Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe and Bertrand at Mr. A’s in Banker’s Hill, says octopus gets a bad rap “strictly on appearance,” but that adventurous diners will be rewarded.
“The appearance of the tentacle is certainly not the most appetizing thing,” he says. “But maybe after trying a bite from their plate, [a diner] they would realize that it is quite different and pleasant to the palate and to the bite.”
Calamari also has tentacles, but has been able to suck up a mainstream fan base.
Davin Waite, a chef/partner of Wrench and Rodent at Bull Taco in Oceanside, has a theory why that is.
“The name 'calamari' sounds sexy. ‘Octopus’ makes people think of a sea monster,” he laughs. “Octopus also requires a little more work to tenderize. We had a spicy squid app on the menu at our last restaurant and the running joke was, ‘Here's your squid; if you don't like squid, it's calamari!’”
Besides having a nice taste, octopus does have another benefit: sustainability, according to Nick Schultz, Executive Chef at Hello Betty Fish House in Oceanside.
“They grow fast and reproduce at a young age. Makes them a great option next to fish. Textbook,” he says.
As octopus becomes more common on menus, it’s liable to crawl into home kitchens as well.
Joe Magnanelli, the executive chef at Fish Public in Kensington, says patience is the key.
“Without giving away our method, you just need to be patient with it,” he says. “It can be undercooked and chewy one minute, and then before you know it, it is overcooked and mushy. Give it love!”