About four years ago, while cooking at Bank in the Hotel Icon, a guy named Brian Brennan started working at Airline Seafood. We sat down and I gave him the same spiel I had given every other fishmonger since I returned to Houston: I wanted different, local, whole fish -- I wanted the fish that I had seen, caught and eaten as a fisherman and citizen of the Gulf Coast. After about 45 minutes of me getting all fired up on the subject and wading though my wish list of fish, Brian popped his head up and said (in his coastal country drawl), “Okay, dude, I gotcha.” Okay? Really? I was speechless, because every other guy in the business came up with beaucoup reasons why it just wasn’t possible but, as far as Brian was concerned, OK was all that was needed.
At the time, I had no idea that Brian had spent most of his natural-born life off of FM 2004. (FM=Farm to Market road, yet another wonderfully unique Texas thing). FM 2004 is that bayou-riddled stretch of a back-road-avenue connecting Freeport with Galveston. I also had no idea that he had spent the past 7-8 years driving up and down the Gulf Coast buying and selling fish. He knew these captains well; hell, he ate Sunday dinner with half of them.
Two to three weeks later, Brian shows up, sporting that big shit-eatin’ grin of his and hauling a whole mess of Golden Tilefish. When they hit the table, I looked him straight up and said, “Brian, I asked you for local! Not shipped, man, local.” He started to explain to me about the deep water shelf that comes closest to Matagorda (the town, not the bay), where the Colorado River dumps out, about 60 miles out from the shore, and the ocean depth starts to drop quickly along with the water temperature – perfect for fish like Golden Tilefish, that I would typically get from the East Coast. He told me how these Golden Tilefish were there, along with many other species that most boats don’t fish for, or even keep if caught, because there are no buyers back at the dock. I couldn’t believe it. I think I might have even called him a liar (sorry about that B). But I did some of my own research and it turns out the Brian was right -- amazing!
Golden Tilefish are from the Malacanthidae family. They are very easy to distinguish among other members of this family because of the large wattle-like adipose flap on the top of their head. Found in waters ranging between 250-1500 feet deep all along the Continental shelf and slope. Their habitat extends from Nova Scotia down to south of Venezuela. The flesh is extremely flaky, lean when cooked and, because of the very low fat content, does not lend itself very well for grilled applications and can become extremely dry when overcooked (slower cooking and or medium temp is highly recommended).
Being able to acquire these types of cherry Gulf fish is what spurred the whole idea of Reef. This may sound like a stretch but, initially, it was the work of Brian and Steve Berreth at Airline that gave me the confidence to open a place like Reef -- confidence that, if I was to write the check, “Local Gulf Seafood,” payment would come back in more than just Snapper, Shrimp & Crab.
There is an old fishing adage that goes like this: an impatient man runs over more fish than he catches on his way to greener pastures. I had been doing that very thing for years. Brian got out of the fish business about two years later but, before he left, he kept me in a steady stream of Golden Tilefish, Trigger Fish, Triple Tail, Croaker, Cobia, Amberjack and many other hard to acquire Gulf species. Airline Seafood’s Steve Berreth and Mark Musatto (my former Executive Sous Chef at Bank) have been able to continue what Brian started with great catches for Reef.