Since I was lucky enough to be in Vancouver during spot prawn season this year, I took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy this sweet crustacean, ending off my visit with a fabulous 6 course spot prawn tasting menu at C Restaurant on Saturday, May 30th. C Restaurant's executive chef, Robert Clark, was a key player in creating the annual Spot Prawn Festival and a champion of sustainable seafood, preferring to deal directly with local fisherman rather than rely on the traditional seafood supply chain. C Restaurant's chef de cuisine, the talented Quang Dang, created the exclusive 6 course tasting menu featuring spot prawns from producer/fisherman Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean. Steve supplies approximately 40 local restaurants but you can purchase live spot prawns directly from False Creek Fisherman's Wharf after 1pm daily during spot prawn season (see my Q&A with Steve below). The 6 course spot prawn tasting menu will be offered at C Restaurant throughout the festival for $98 per person (wine pairings for an additional $50 per person).
C Restaurant's Spot Prawn Tasting Menu 2009
The restaurant's location on the water's edge under Granville Bridge offers stunning views of False Creek. The fabulous food and attentive service truly made this a night to remember...
Before the tasting menu began, we were treated with some house potato chips with spicy mayo, an amuse bouche trio of Tuna Escabeche, Celery Water, and Lobster Knuckle (wrapped in pickled asparagus), and a selection from the bread basket (the seaweed black sesame bread was my favorite, delicious with butter sprinkled with volcanic salt):
1st course, Spot Prawn Ceviche, Crispy Head, Red Seaweed: super delicate flavor, with a hint of citrus and chive, crispy battered head was full of prawn-y goodness, gorgeous red seaweed added visual and textural contrast.
2nd course, Spot Prawn Sashimi, Jellied Consommé, Smoked Albacore Tuna Flakes, Compressed Cucumber: the best way to enjoy spot prawns - raw! The jellied spot prawn consomme exploded with intense prawn flavor, albacore tuna flakes added a salty smokey bite, heat from the togarashi spice was offset by the refreshing "compressed" cucumber slices (vacuum sealed with juniper).
3rd Course, Potato Crusted Bayne Sound Scallop, Spot Prawn Ravioli, Pickled Ramps. Brown Butter Caper Sauce: This dish was absolute perfection - crunchy potato crust on a juicy local scallop, juicy whole spot prawn tucked inside the ravioli, sweet pickled ramps, a schmear of stoney paradise raisin puree, and the salty crunch of deep fried capers.
4th Course, Seared Cape Scott Halibut, Herb Poached Spot Prawn, Leek Puree, Black Truffle Gel: my hubby's favorite course; spot prawn was poached beautifully but I would have preferred my halibut cooked a little less. Charred chives added visual interest but didn't add much flavor. Leek puree was very subtle, black truffle gel added some sweetness, gorgeous ribbons of local asparagus (from Whistler) and pickled radish and carrots added some crunch and color.
Bonus Course! Muscovy Duck Breast, Poached Spot Prawn, Watercress Puree & Duck Leg Confit, Leek Confit, Shiitake Mushrooms, Concord Grape Preserve Puree: duck breast had amazing flavor, with no gamey-ness, spot prawn cooked very simply letting its natural sweetness shine through, duck leg confit was mouthwatering, shiitake mushrooms had an irresitible earthy flavor, sweet concord grape puree complemented all the flavors nicely. Getting full at this point!
5th Course, Roasted AAA Beef Ribeye, Salt Baked Pemberton Beets, Spot Prawn Pollen, Brandied Jus: Simply seasoned ribeye, natural flavor of the beef was delicous - medium rare, topped with a tiny amount of the chef's special house XO sauce (dried prawns and scallops, with a bit of heat from ginger?), served with gorgeous local purple beets and chopped sweet yellow rutabaga, but the revelation of this dish was the spot prawn "pollen" -spot prawn broth dried into a sweet prawn powder - melted immediately on your tongue, and the spot prawn "pearls" - luscious tiny spheres made the dish super fun to eat.
6th Course, Dark Chocolate Tartlette, Vanilla ‘Prawn Cracker’: very delicate prawn flavor in the "cracker" reminiscent of Malaysian shrimp keropok - wished I could have had more of these. The malted tartlette was filled with a dark chocolate ganache so bitter that I was surprised to find out that the chocolate used was only 64% cacao. The bitterness of the tarlette was alleviated nicely by the sweetness of the phenomenal house made pistachio ice cream.
After 3 hours of continuous eating, we were stuffed beyond belief, drifting into food comas. Thanks to Chef de Cuisine Quang Dang and all the staff of C Restaurant, especially our awesome waiter Drew, for an amazing culinary experience.
2-1600 Howe Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada
In addition to the tasting menu, hubby Kris and I ate spot prawns at least 7 other times during our stay in Vancouver:
BC Spot Prawns, Spinach and Mung Bean Sprouts in Coconut and Lemon Curry at world renowned Vij's restaurant. Owner/celebrity chef Vikram Vij is proud to be one of the only restaurants able to feature local BC spot prawns year-round. His secret? During spot prawn season, producer Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean blast freezes 30,000 pounds of spot prawns in ocean water for Vij. When thawed, you can't tell that they've ever been frozen!
Spot Prawn on Konbu, with Pea Shoot Salad and Tomato Jelly, prepared by Chef Julian Bond of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (spot prawns from producer Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean), at "For the Love of Fish: From Producer to Plate", a showcase of 8 local sustainable seafoods held by Slow Food Vancouver and Sea Choice at the Italian Cultural Centre on May 28th.
Citrus Olive Oil Poached Spot Prawns, prepared by Chef de Cuisine David Robinson of Chambar restaurant (recipe by Executive Chef Nico Scheurman), at a spot prawn cooking demonstration at the Public Market on Granville Island on May 16th (as part ot the Spot Prawn Festival 2009). Recipe here.
Spot Prawns (aka "Live Prawns") at Imperial Court Chinese Restaurant in Richmond, BC
Spot Prawns poached in a dashi broth, with a pea shoot daikon salad and sake yuzu sauce, at Blue Water Cafe (executive chef: Frank Pabst). This was the only dish I didn't quite "get" - the spot prawns were mushy and bland in flavor. Our waiter, after consulting with the chef, told me that the consistency was achieved by the poaching method. The chef was so distressed upon finding out that we didn't like the dish, he sent out another appetizer on the house - spot prawns served on sea asparagus in a beurre blanc sauce. The sea asparagus was a nice surprise, but the prawns were still mushy. When the waiter came back to ask us whether we liked the 2nd dish, I asked him again whether it was the chef's intention for the prawns to have this consistency and the waiter assured us that everything the chef did was deliberate. Oh well, maybe it's just my unsophisticated palate, Blue Water Cafe is known as one of Vancouver's best seafood restaurants afterall. When I ran into Steve Johansen again at the sustainable seafood showcase, I told him about our experience at Blue Water and he said the mushiness probably resulted from overcooking. Also, according to Chef Julian Bond from the Pacific Culinary Institute of Culinary Arts, if spot prawns die with their heads on and you wait too long to freeze or cook them, stomach acid will leach into their flesh and make them mushy.
Live Spot Prawns from Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean at False Creek Fisherman's Wharf ($12 per pound, 10/11 count per pound)
Spot Prawn "Sashimi", fresh off Steve's boat!
Steve Johansen's spot prawns, as prepared by my mother for our family dinner. My mom's simple spot prawn recipe: In a wok, sauté thinly sliced garlic in vegetable oil till slightly crispy. Remove garlic and set aside. Add live prawns to garlic oil left in the wok and sauté for 2 minutes. Season lightly with white pepper and soy sauce. Add a splash of water to wok and cover, letting prawns steam for an additional 2 minutes. Garnish with crispy garlic and serve with steamed rice and veggies.
How to eat a head-on spot prawn (do this over a bowl of steamed rice so it soaks up all the yummy prawn juices)
1. Gently remove head from body:
2. Suck all the brainy goodness out of the prawn head. Hubby Kris gladly passed me all his prawn heads ("I don't suck head" - Kris):
3. Open the head - grab the biggest pointy spiky thing protruding from head with one hand and gather all other dangly thingys with the other hand and pull apart head. This step is optional but there are some tiny edible pieces inside the head (do not eat the gill-like thingys or the dark sac in the head):
4. Lastly, remove shell and tail from body:
My favorite way to eat spot prawns? Raw, fresh off the boat. No cooking necessary!
Want to know more about spot prawns? Here are some cool facts from my favorite BC spot prawn fishermen...
Q&A with Steve Johansen and Frank Keitsch from Organic Ocean
Q: What’s an average day like during spot prawn season?
A: At 6:30am, seven days a week, Steve and Frank leave Fisherman’s Wharf in their dayboat and head 5 to 15 miles into the Pacific Ocean to empty and reset 300 traps in their “secret” spots (fishermen are understandably very secretive about where they fish). They keep the harvested spot prawns alive and happy in holding tanks in their boat (filled with cold ocean water) and return to Fisherman’s Wharf around 1pm daily, where they’ll sell spot prawns to the public until they sell out for the day (sometimes in as little as 1 hour!) Steve’s company, Organic Ocean, also supplies approximately 40 local restaurants with his high quality spot prawns. In the past month, he’s expanded his distribution to Toronto, Canada, shipping live prawns overnight to approximately 20 Toronto restaurants.
Q: Why is spot prawn fishing sustainable?
A: Spot prawns are trap fisheries – there are no nets being dragged along the ocean floor. Traps also result in virtually no bi-catch and do not damage the ocean floor. Great care is taken by local fisheries to ensure responsible fishing and sustainability - spot prawn season opens only after the mature spot prawns have finished spawning and have molted, and there is no danger of overfishing because the season is only open for 6 to 8 weeks every year. Spot prawn fishing licenses are limited and expensive to obtain. There are also trap per license, single haul per day, and minimum harvest size restrictions. During spot prawn season, a spawner index is taken regularly to ensure there is no overfishing; areas are closed off if there is any indication that they may be getting overfished. According to Steve, the 2009 season should last till the 1st week in July. After spending so much time getting up close and personal with live spot prawns, I was starting to feel sorry for personally consuming so many of the cute little guys. But according to Steve and Frank, spot prawns only live an average of 4 years and will die soon after they lay their eggs, so most of the spot prawns that end up on our dinner plates were on already on their “death march” before being caught.
Q: Why are spot prawns better than tiger prawns?
A: Most of the tiger prawns you’ll come across are farmed and grown in what Steve and Frank refer to as “sewer lagoons” (referring to the high levels of toxicity measured in farmed tiger prawns). Wild spot prawns from fresh BC waters taste sweet because of their short 4 year life span which limits the buildup of toxins and metals.
Q: What was Steve’s role in the creating the annual Spot Prawn Festival?
A: Around 4 years ago, Steve took Robert Clark, Executive Chef of C Restaurant, Raincity Grill, and Nu out for a day of spot prawning on his boat. At the time, 90% of all BC Spot Prawns were being exported to Japan. The remaining 10% were sold to Chinatown and local Asian markets. Robert Clark wanted to know how he could get his hands on some of these local spot prawns for his own restaurants; the 100 mile diet had just been published and local restaurants and consumers were starting to embrace local sustainable BC products. Together, Robert and Steve came up with the idea for a festival to celebrate local spot prawns and to keep them “at home”. The 1st spot prawn festival took place in 2007 and had around 300 people show up during the launch. By the following year, attendance at the official kickoff reached over a thousand. This year, it was “total chaos” at the 3rd Annual Spot Prawn Festival launch on May 9th (excellent coverage of the kickoff event by fellow blogger Ho Yummy here) with an estimated 2000 people showing up to sample spot prawns from 10 local chefs (including Tojo Hidekazu from Tojo’s, Robert Belcham from Fuel, Andrea Carlson from Bishop’s, and Quang Dang from C Restaurant). Many local chefs have also been out fishing with Steve to see how spot prawns are caught (Steve was even nice enough to invite me to go fishing one day, but I had to graciously decline – my inner ear imbalance would force me to jump off the tiny boat and swim back to shore. I know all you fellow bloggers are shaking your head at me – yeah, I should have just sucked it up and gone prawning, but my motion sickness is honestly so bad that I’ve gotten seasick before on a 130,000 ton cruise ship).
Q: So how many of Steve’s spot prawns are being shipped to Japan nowadays?
A: Steve was very proud to tell me that every spot prawn he caught last season was sold locally! Vancouver restaurants are now able to get their hands on high export quality spot prawns previously reserved for the lucrative Japanese market.
Q: Organic Ocean is selling spot prawns fresh off the boat for $12 per lb. So how are Asian supermarkets such as T&T able to sell live spot prawns for less?
A: Look at the size and quality of the live prawns from the Asian markets compared to the prawns available from Steve at Fisherman’s Wharf. At the Asian markets, the prawns are considerably smaller and represent the crap that’s left once the higher quality prawns are picked out for export to Japan. After doing my own comparison of spot prawns available around Vancouver, I would gladly pay $12 a pound for the giant beauties caught by Steve and Frank. There’s a reason why all the top local restaurants only use Organic Ocean as their spot prawn supplier.
Q: How can you tell a spot prawn is fresh?
A: Clear heads, no dark spots.
Q: Any little known facts about spot prawns?
A: Spot Prawns are hermaphrodites, born male and eventually becoming female to lay eggs at the end of their life. Also, spot prawns are clear and almost colorless when first caught! Their coloring begins to deepen when you first take them out of the traps and they turn redder as they get nearer to death. Steve and Frank think the color change has something to do with the pressure of the ocean as spot prawns typically live 300 – 500 feet deep.
Q: So what’s next, now that Organic Ocean spot prawns have conquered Vancouver and Toronto?
A: Hoping to introduce spot prawns to New York in the near future!
Special thanks to Steve Johansen and Frank Keitsch of Organic Ocean for taking the time to answer all my questions! Go down to Fisherman's Wharf and visit them sometime - they are seriously the nicest guys around. Their enthusiasm about what they do for a living was totally contagious (Hubby Kris wants to be a spot prawn fisherman now; he even ate the spot prawn sashimi off the boat!).
Looking for live spot prawns to cook?
You can buy live spot prawns from Organic Ocean daily after 1pm for $12 a pound at the False Creek Fisherman's Wharf for the duration of spot prawn season. For more information about the Spot Prawn Festival, contact Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean at 778.231.9453 or email: email@example.com
Rather someone else do the cooking?
Check the Chefs Table Society website for a list of 40 local restaurants participating in the Spot Prawn festival.
Details on specific restaurants:
C Restaurant, 6 course Spot Prawn Tasting Menu for $98 per person throughout the season
Fuel Restaurant - Spot Prawn "Boil" for $85 per person every Saturday at 7pm throughout the season (prepare to get your hands dirty!)
Vij's - Spot Prawns featured on the menu all year round
Go Fish! - Just a few steps from Fisherman's Wharf, cooking up spot prawn specials daily during the season. Also the best fish 'n' chips in Vancouver.
Also check Metronews.ca Vancouver for a great list of restaurants where you can get your "prawn on"!