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April 14, 2010 at 11:39 AM

Sniffing out the top seafood shops in Greater Seattle. Yours?

Let’s talk about shopping for seafood in Greater Seattle.

Commenting on my last post regarding food-gone-bad, “Ungruntled” remarked that he (or is that she?) is a big fan of the fish counter at Shoreline Central Market, where I often stop for seafood. “As far as supermarkets go, their seafood is among the best,” insists Ungruntled. “It’s the only non-specialty place I’ll buy fish (the specialty places: University Seafood & Poultry and Mutual Fish). They’re very good about letting me sniff the product before I buy (with them holding it, of course).”

Which brings me back to Becky Selengut, whose recipes for her upcoming sustainable-seafood cookbook got me on the subject in the first place. While we were yakking about vendors this week, Becky, whose preferred retail outlet is Mutual Fish on Rainier Avenue South, described to me a foray to the U-District’s University Seafood .

I bought these fresh snapper at my favorite fish-stop, Pure Food Fish Market in Pike Place Market, where they always offer a free taste of their “famous” alder-smoked king salmon (knowing full well that, having tasted it, I’ll then bring home a ridiculously expensive hunk). Worth it!

Standing at the counter in the University Seafood for the first time, Becky asked if she could smell the scallops. The fishmonger looked at her sideways, she recalled, said “We stand by our quality,” then scallops in hand, allowed her — grudgingly, to her thinking — to lean over the counter and give ’em a sniff. They smelled wonderful. Convinced she was buying a fresh product, she introduced herself as a chef and chatted with the fishmonger, who explained his reticence by noting that the health department frowns on the practice of allowing customers to sniff the seafood.

Nostrils flaring, “I said, `Excuse me?'” Becky told me. “How else would I know they were fresh?'” His reply: “What if you sneezed on it?” Her rejoinder: “Well then, I’d hope you wouldn’t put it back in the case!'”

“Through all of history, people smell the fish before buying it,” said the incredulous chef. And I’m with her: using one’s nose as a guide — as generations of seafood lovers have done before us — is the way we’ve learned to trust an unfamiliar fishmonger. Then she asked me to do her a favor: “Can you find out whether the guy was telling the truth?”

I’ve been trusting University Seafood — among my top spots for fresh fish — for as long as I’ve lived in Seattle, but I agreed to do a little fact-checking on my friend’s behalf. And I went straight to the source: Public Health — Seattle & King County. Turns out the fella at University Seafood wasn’t just telling a fish tale. Here’s the health department’s response, via an e-mail from communications manager James Apa:

“Code requires protection, such as glass casing or wrapping, against potential contamination of the fish by the consumer. Removing these protections so that a customer could smell the fish would be a code violation, as it raises the possibility that the product could be coughed or sneezed on. An acceptable option would be for the vendor to cut a small piece of the fish for the consumer to smell, which could then be discarded.”

Well blow me over with some funky fish-stink! Sniffing seafood was against government regulations? Blasphemy! I was as surprised to hear that as Becky was, as I’m not above asking my fishmonger for a whiff, and have never before been denied one — though I’ve occasionally gotten the stink-eye for asking.

Interestingly, award-winning author James Peterson suggests in my (much-thumbed) cooking reference “Fish & Seafood,” that when buying whole fish one of the ways to judge its quality is this: “If the fishmonger will let you [my italics], lift up the gill cover and give it a sniff.”

I’m certain there are many of you who insist you wouldn’t want other customers manhandling your seafood (who can blame you), or snorting over it, but think about this: How many people have been squeezing your fruits and slobbering on your vegetables before you’ve laid your hands on them? Flouting the law or no, I’m convinced that in the contest that is fish vs. foul, the nose knows.

For the record, Apa wrote; “As a side-note, our food safety folks say that a `smell test’ isn’t a good indication if the food is safe to eat or not.” Which begs the question: If it’s safe but it stinks, who would want to eat it?

So tell me: Where’s your top shop when you’re in the market for seafood?

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