Postado em sexta-feira, 5 de julho de 2024 12:03

On a recent Sunday evening at Theodora in Brooklyn, the main attraction wasn’t the plush pockets of bread emerging from the several-thousand-dollar wood-and-charcoal Josper oven or even the literal plume of fire rising from the mangal grill beside it to kiss an order of honey habanero prawns. It was a school of whole fish, hanging by their tails in a dry-aging locker that was backlit like a good omen and visible from nearly every seat in the restaurant. Inside, dangling from large hooks, were Ora King salmon, striped bass, and several trout, each gutted, cleaned, and tagged with a piece of paper displaying a date several days earlier. As the fish hung in the temperature-controlled environment without seasoning, air circulation systematically removed moisture, leaving a higher proportion of fat that chefs swear enhances texture and flavor dramatically. As soon as I sat, my server pitched me on the merits of the dry-aged whole branzino — $78 — in a solicitous tone usually reserved for a Wagyu special: “It’s so tender, it slips right from the bones,” she murmured with a smize.

Indeed, the glowing locker is becoming a status symbol for a certain type of restaurant across New York City where dry-aged fish isn’t just a focus — it’s the whole point.

“It sounds like it makes no sense. People have been told their entire life, ‘You want to eat fish as fresh as possible,’” says Harold Dieterle, who proudly displays a fish locker of his own in the buzzy new West Village seafood restaurant Il Totano. There, the best seller is an appetizer of dry-aged kampachi in passion-fruit broth, and a $42 filet of dry-aged branzino edges out every other entrée. “When you dry-age,” Dieterle says, “the flavors and the umami really develop.”

I encountered a few more obvious benefits at Theodora when I ordered the trout, which is aged for three days at 3 degrees Celsius and 80 percent humidity. Its flesh was Creamsicle orange with crispy skin so puffy that it stretched away from the meat like the fat cap on a wedge of pork belly. The fish itself was mild, a conduit for the smoky flavors of the grill, and as buttery as kippered salmon.

New York City, it turns out, is behind the ball: Some itamae — sushi chefs — have been dry-aging their sashimi for, well, ages. And the quiet transformation of seafood from fish to slightly firmer, slightly more flavorful aged fish has been taking place outside of sushi dens for years now, including in Australia, where fish-aging pioneer Josh Niland has evangelized its merits since he accidentally left 15 portions of wild kingfish in front of a kitchen fan overnight. The next day, when he slipped a filet skin-down into hot oil and anchored it with a weight, “The skin had puffed so hard that it caused the one-kilogram weight to fall off,” he says. “I had managed to create some sort of suckling-pig situation with a big, blistering bubble on top of the fish.” Further experimentation with dry-aging fish on the bone led him to understand that he was allowing the “development of glutamates,” which he says lends a more savory flavor.

“With a fish that’s pristine and fatty, it really starts to shine as it ages,” says Jeff Miller, the executive chef of Rosella and Bar Miller, where much of the fish that gets whittled into delicate lengths of sashimi is aged in one of three DRYAGER fish lockers. “The flavor becomes more pronounced — not fishy, but you start to taste more of what it actually is.” (The longest Miller has ever let it rip was 40 days, for a hunk of tuna.)

If the fish lockers popping up around New York City look like the vessels that usually cradle tomahawk steaks, that’s because they are. Since dry-aging fish is so similar to aging a mammal protein — the extraction of moisture from flesh — the same machinery may be used, with fine-tuning of temperature and humidity. At Penny, trout matures in a Steak Locker fridge. Meanwhile, Sarah Shires, brand-partnership coordinator for DRYAGER — the company that has supplied a number of the lockers being used to mature marine life — said that she can’t quantify exactly how many of the units they’ve sold are being used for fish specifically, but that DRYAGER has seen a “significant increase in demand for multiple units at the same restaurant — one for fish, and one for beef.” She said the shift has been so great that “we are considering changing our product tag line ‘Built for Beef’ to something more inclusive.”

It is probably no coincidence that dry-aged fish is taking off as the price of beef is expected to hit record highs. Whole branzino as a marquee entrée isn’t exactly cost-effective — and aging fish results in some volume loss, making it a bit more expensive per pound — but as Dieterle put it, “I’m feeling lucky I decided to open a fish restaurant. It’s unbelievable how expensive ingredients are in general, but beef specifically is insane.” He points out that his fish is not cheap, “but it seems like the inflation on fish prices versus beef is not comparable.”

“Dry-aging,” generally, says Niland, implies luxury. “It’s a status thing — you go into Peter Luger and get your dry-aged steak, and you’re sending a message to friends you understand the nuances of beef.” Dry-aging fish, he hopes, “could totally be like that. Conversations like, ‘Have you been to that new shop that has fish hanging in the window?’” (The longest he’s ever dry-aged fish was 58 days at 0 degrees Celsius at 69 percent humidity, with a whole yellow tuna. “That was like roast beef. It was crazy,” he says.)

The other upside of aging is that it naturally extends a product’s shelf life. “A chef’s anxiety,” Dieterle says, “is when you are ordering fish for the weekend,” since Sunday deliveries are harder to come by. “The fact that I can dump a bunch of stuff into the dry-ager and know it’s going be good when I need it is amazing.” Anthony Bourdain’s famous advice was once not to order seafood on a Monday. Now, after it spends a weekend in the aging locker, that’s probably when the salmon is best.

Demand from diners suggests we’re a baby step away from the cheese-coated red-meat-everything era that has gripped New York City since the pandemic. A whole butterflied trout, as Theodora’s executive chef and co-owner Tomer Blechman points out, “doesn’t make you feel shitty, or, the next day, like you ate who knows how much fatty beef.”

Chefs are still taking cues from steakhouses, however: The other week at Moono, a Korean restaurant in Manhattan, a three-day dry-aged whole branzino was served on an unadorned dish, completely by itself, a plating style employed usually for a porterhouse or rib eye. The seafood smelled of just-popped popcorn, and when my companion cut into the sticky-crisp skin, it crackled like tissue paper in a gift bag.


By Ella Quittner, a journalist who covers culture, food, and bizarre trends | GRUBSTREET | New York Magazine