I was recently invited by the Vancouver Aquarium to have lunch with two of their staff and learn about the Ocean Wise program.  So yesterday I headed to Tapenade Bistro in Steveston, and had the pleasure of dining with these fine people: “Fisherman Frank” Keitsch, co-owner of Organic Ocean; Mike McDermid, Ocean Wise Partner Relations Manager; and Charlene Chiang, Director of Communications for the Vancouver Aquarium.

We ate a beautiful lunch, I asked 1001 questions, and I left that afternoon both well-fed and far more knowledgeable than I’d been two hours previous.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ocean Wise, here’s a little background: founded seven years ago by the Vancouver Aquarium, the program aims to educate chefs, suppliers, and the public about sustainable seafood, as well as working tirelessly to create a market for sustainably-caught seafood in Canada.

As Mike pointed out to me, the boat-to-consumer chain of seafood is mind-bendingly complicated, and one of the biggest challenges for Ocean Wise has been figuring out how to provide simple, trustworthy ways to choose sustainable seafood.  In fact, the system as a whole is so complicated, not even the experts can claim to have it all figured out, and so it’s easy for the average consumer to get overwhelmed by doomsday facts and figures.

Ocean Wise understands that, not only making it easier for restaurants to access sustainable seafood, but also making that seafood more obvious to the public.  Hence, the Ocean Wise logo.

If you see it on a menu, in a retail shop, or tattooed on the forehead of any chef, you’ll know they’re using sustainable seafood.  It’s as simple as that.

I’ve yet to see any chefs who’ve actually tattooed the logo on their foreheads, and that’s actually my  idea, not the Vancouver Aquarium’s.  For anyone willing to do it, I will bake you cookies, and hold your hand through the process should you need the support.

The second great thing about the Ocean Wise program is its positive, un-dogmatic approach; it doesn’t preach to people about what NOT to eat, but rather provides simple tools for finding seafood they’ll feel GOOD about eating.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will the transition to fully sustainable fisheries be made overnight, and they understand that.  That’s why restaurants aren’t required to switch their menus over to fully Ocean Wise products, the idea being that one dish with the Ocean Wise logo is better than none.

Mike also spoke of how their program is just one of many programs and organizations working towards the same goal.  Each are unique pieces of an enormous puzzle, and collaborate regularly to improve the system as a whole.  They work closely with the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, for example, who are currently setting up a sustainable seafood exhibit, and who put on the sustainable seafood fest I attended a while back.  At that festival, Chef Ian Lai demonstrated how to cook sardines, a traditionally unpopular fish that doesn’t deserve the neglect it receives!

Which leads me to another topic that Mike, Charlene, Frank and I discussed: the influence of chefs just like Ian Lai.  They’re trendsetters, and if a traditionally ‘lowly’ fish is featured on their menus, the status of that lesser-known sustainable seafood can change overnight.  Spot prawns are the perfect example; once ignored and considered sub-par compared to tiger prawns, they’re now known worldwide as a seasonal delicacy.  Ocean Wise works closely with chefs to feature all sustainable seafood options, not just the trendy or popular ones.  I couldn’t help but ask what they think the next ‘rags to riches’ seafood will be, and  Fisherman Frank feels confident it’ll be his favourite fish: lingcod.  It may be ugly to look at straight out of the water, but he says its both flavourful and affordable.  Watch out world, lingcod is comin’ for ya!

To speak for hours about seafood without eating any would be torture, so Tapenade took care of that for us.  We ate two small courses featuring Ocean Wise products, prepared especially for the occasion by the Tapenade’s new Head Chef, Andrew Eyre.

The first course was a Poached White Prawn Cocktail with micro greens, poached fruit, and a lemon aioli.  They were gorgeous, especially with the aioli.

Our second taste was “Last of the Season” Pan-Roasted Halibut with black rice, butternut squash puree, roasted tomatoes, and caper cream.  It was a beautiful plate – colourful, dynamic, and healthy!  We enjoyed a Poplar Grove Pinot Gris with our meal, and both Frank and I suggested (or rather, demanded) Mike and Charlene visit The Sweet Spot before heading back to Vancouver.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Vince, Chef Andrew, Mike, Charlene, and Frank (who’ll be featured later on the blog), for meeting with me yesterday.  They don’t just do incredible work – they also make amazing company!  I laughed, I learned, we hugged.  We didn’t actually hug, but we could of.  I liked them that much.

Of course, not all the seafood I’ve eaten nor will eat in Richmond will be certified by Ocean Wise, but it’s phenomenal to know there are a number of options, and those continue to grow by the day.

However is one to find them?  Well there’s an app for that, of course!  Click here to download it, and/or go to the Ocean Wise website for a complete listing of restaurants across the Lower Mainland and Canada.

My light lunch at Tapenade didn’t count as my meal for the day, so luckily my good friend Karen Anderson was in town last night from Calgary, and she’s always up for finding a good west coast meal!

We chose The Boathouse Restaurant in northwest Richmond, which is part of a chain of restaurants across Metro Vancouver.  It’s a large, bustling place right on the water, though of course darkness descends so early now, we missed the view.

Karen, her friends Norah, Tilly, and I enjoyed a wonderful meal together.  Karen was the first person I met when I moved to Calgary years ago; she helped me find a job, connected me with all sorts of amazing people, and has continued to provide me with love and encouragement through the years.  Plus she brought me chocolate, so she obviously knows me well.

The menu at The Boathouse was laden with Ocean Wise seafood, and we took ages deciding what to order.  We finally agreed on Thai Crab Cakes ($12.99) to start, then the Seasonal Fish Duo ($28.99) for myself, the Cioppino (I believe was $29.99) for Karen, the Chop Chop Salad ($19.99) for Tilly, and the Coconut Pacific Cod ($21.99) for Norah.

Judging by the prices, you can tell this is more of a special occasion restaurant for seafood lovers than a casual-Tuesday-night kind of place.

The crab cakes came with Tabasco lemon aioli and mango salsa, and were really nice.  They were a mixture of crab and shrimp, quite crunchy on the outside, and well-seasoned.  We finished two orders of them easily!

My seasonal fish duo included miso-encrusted cod, a sort of mildly Cajun-spiced sockeye salmon, broccolini, a few grilled vegetables, and deliciously crunchy roast potatoes.  On its own, cod is pretty unremarkable, but dress it up with a salty miso crust and you’re good to go!  Both the cod and salmon were perfectly cooked, and I really enjoyed the dish.

Tilly’s salad with salmon, shrimp, greens, and egg was less remarkable; she said she liked the dressing, but the pieces of salmon were overcooked, and it was rather humdrum.

If you’re looking for a healthy option but don’t want salad again, go for Norah’s dish, the Coconut Pacific Cod.  This was the most beautifully presented plate of all, with the fish sitting atop a stew-like, almost smokey-tasting quinoa.  Again, with plenty of flavours added and some fresh pea shoots, a modest piece of cod becomes a star!

Karen’s Ciopinno, an Italian seafood stew similar to bouillabaisse, arrived looking like an ocean cornucopia.  It had mussels, prawns, and crab resting atop a fennel-rich, tomato-based broth.  I tried a mussel, some of the broth, and a bite of crab, which were all great.  I thought the bowl could have used a bit more broth, however.

The Boathouse is a place to go for traditional west coast favourites featuring sustainable seafood – the perfect place to catch up with three great friends.  Bon voyage ladies (they’re headed to India today), and thanks again to Ocean Wise for all its outstanding work!

And here’s a handy tip – if you’ve got a loved one who loves to cook, the Ocean Wise cookbook might just be the perfect Christmas present….