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A bass by any other name

Seeking barramundi in Coronado

I enjoy a good plate of sea bass. At least I think I do. While there were once plenty of bass in the sea, they’ve mostly been overfished, and with each passing year it’s less likely the bass on my menu is a bass.

Place

Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill

1701 Strand Way, Coronado

Instead, “sea bass” has become a generic term used to describe mild, flakey white fish. So-called Chilean sea bass? That’s really a Patagonian toothfish. White sea bass? That’s a croaker. Blue spotted, Hawaiian, and black sea bass are all groupers, while Peruvian and Japanese sea bass are both perch.

Part of the reason for this is marketing (no one would order toothfish off a menu). But it’s also a matter of conservation. For example, the giant sea bass, once plentiful off our coast, were fished to near extinction by the 1980s. You may get farm-raised striped bass or branzino (European sea bass), but more often you’ll see some of these others, which might be considered fish alternatives for people who like sea bass.

Thing is, if bass-like is close enough to stake the claim on our dinner menus, the replacement fish better be worth the ruse. For example, Chilean sea bass has been praised for fine flavor and texture, but it’s endangered and plagued by high mercury levels. However, another southern hemisphere bass alternative promises both sustainability and low mercury: the Australian sea bass.

This fish is called a barramundi, and its life cycle is sort of the reverse of a salmon: it lives in rivers but spawns in ocean water. Like salmon, it’s high in super-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but like the bass it’s white and flaky when cooked. And unlike a lot of farmed fish, it’s said to be raised in low-density tanks (rather than exposed to a polluted ocean), each fish yielding a higher volume of seafood than it consumes.

It sounds great on paper, but how would it taste? To find out, I visited Bluewater Boathouse and Seafood Grill. Not to be confused with the popular Mission Hills fish market, this stunning dockside restaurant resides in the 130-year-old former Hotel del Coronado boat house, which sits across the street from the hotel and boasts architecture to match.

Barramundi appears to be its sea bass of choice, and I found it listed as “Seabass, Australian” for $26 on the Today’s Fish menu. Other fish include sanddabs, rainbow trout, and ahi tuna — an encouraging variety. Less encouraging is that Bluewater serves tilapia, which is gross, whatever you call it.

My barramundi came out pan-seared, with tasty sides of sautéed spinach and scalloped potatoes. Given a choice of sauce I went with Chermoula, apparently a popular fish condiment on the North African side of the Mediterranean.

The herbal sauce was fine, but the barramundi ate pretty well on its own, as its mild flavor responded to light seasoning from its sear. Its high oil content ensured it stayed moist, and it had more of a meaty toothsome, meaty texture than some flaky fish. From a purely epicurean perspective, I prefer a genuine bass, especially branzino. But, anytime I’m in pursuit of a healthy seafood diet, I will have no trouble ordering barramundi by name.

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The southern hemisphere fish, Barramundi, referred to on the menu as Australian sea bass.
The southern hemisphere fish, Barramundi, referred to on the menu as Australian sea bass.

I enjoy a good plate of sea bass. At least I think I do. While there were once plenty of bass in the sea, they’ve mostly been overfished, and with each passing year it’s less likely the bass on my menu is a bass.

Place

Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill

1701 Strand Way, Coronado

Instead, “sea bass” has become a generic term used to describe mild, flakey white fish. So-called Chilean sea bass? That’s really a Patagonian toothfish. White sea bass? That’s a croaker. Blue spotted, Hawaiian, and black sea bass are all groupers, while Peruvian and Japanese sea bass are both perch.

Part of the reason for this is marketing (no one would order toothfish off a menu). But it’s also a matter of conservation. For example, the giant sea bass, once plentiful off our coast, were fished to near extinction by the 1980s. You may get farm-raised striped bass or branzino (European sea bass), but more often you’ll see some of these others, which might be considered fish alternatives for people who like sea bass.

Thing is, if bass-like is close enough to stake the claim on our dinner menus, the replacement fish better be worth the ruse. For example, Chilean sea bass has been praised for fine flavor and texture, but it’s endangered and plagued by high mercury levels. However, another southern hemisphere bass alternative promises both sustainability and low mercury: the Australian sea bass.

This fish is called a barramundi, and its life cycle is sort of the reverse of a salmon: it lives in rivers but spawns in ocean water. Like salmon, it’s high in super-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but like the bass it’s white and flaky when cooked. And unlike a lot of farmed fish, it’s said to be raised in low-density tanks (rather than exposed to a polluted ocean), each fish yielding a higher volume of seafood than it consumes.

It sounds great on paper, but how would it taste? To find out, I visited Bluewater Boathouse and Seafood Grill. Not to be confused with the popular Mission Hills fish market, this stunning dockside restaurant resides in the 130-year-old former Hotel del Coronado boat house, which sits across the street from the hotel and boasts architecture to match.

Barramundi appears to be its sea bass of choice, and I found it listed as “Seabass, Australian” for $26 on the Today’s Fish menu. Other fish include sanddabs, rainbow trout, and ahi tuna — an encouraging variety. Less encouraging is that Bluewater serves tilapia, which is gross, whatever you call it.

My barramundi came out pan-seared, with tasty sides of sautéed spinach and scalloped potatoes. Given a choice of sauce I went with Chermoula, apparently a popular fish condiment on the North African side of the Mediterranean.

The herbal sauce was fine, but the barramundi ate pretty well on its own, as its mild flavor responded to light seasoning from its sear. Its high oil content ensured it stayed moist, and it had more of a meaty toothsome, meaty texture than some flaky fish. From a purely epicurean perspective, I prefer a genuine bass, especially branzino. But, anytime I’m in pursuit of a healthy seafood diet, I will have no trouble ordering barramundi by name.

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