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story.lead_photo.caption Bill Mahoney and his family have been fish- ing for lobsters in the Boston area for more than 40 years. Their East Point Lobster Co. ships to their cen- tral Arkansas “affliate,” Mahoney’s son Ryan, who supplies live lobsters and other sea- food to sever- al Little Rock restaurants and country and golf clubs.

If you live on a coastline, fresh seafood means a couple of hours -- or less -- from sea to table to mouth.

Earlier that day, that fish was alive. Somebody caught it and took it to a dock, from whence somebody quickly delivered it to a restaurant or the market, where you ordered or bought it.

In Arkansas, where even the southern tier of counties is several hundred miles from salt water, seafood is truly "fresh" only if somebody just fished it from a river, lake or stream. In a few rare instances, a cook may have pulled it, live, from a restaurant tank. (For example, live lobsters.)

In the current culinary context, however, "fresh" seafood mostly means is that it isn't frozen. In most cases, it's packed on ice -- well, not necessarily ice, but technological ice: gel pacs or dry ice that keep it at a constant temperature -- at the dock or in a warehouse so it stays chilled but doesn't freeze.

It ships by airplane to a seafood distributor or auction house in an intermediate city such as Memphis or Dallas. And then it's trucked to restaurant kitchens and markets around the state, the biggest restaurant markets being Little Rock, Fayetteville and Bentonville.

By that time, it has been, perhaps, en route anywhere from 18 to 36 hours. It still qualifies as "fresh" because it hasn't been "frozen." And streamlined shipping methods have made that a pretty quick turnaround, according to a pair of Little Rock restaurateurs who run multiple establishments that serve seafood and a local scion of a New England family that supplies it.

'SMELL THE OCEAN'

"When we do a special at Oceans at Arthur's, say, halibut from Alaska, it was caught Monday and Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, it's here," says Manjeev De Mel, general manager at the three Little Rock restaurants owned and operated by Jerry Barakat -- Arthur's Prime Steakhouse; its west Little Rock sibling, Oceans at Arthur's; and Hillcrest's Kemuri sushi, seafood, robata.

"Salmon comes in from the Scottish isles. All the big sea scallops used in all three restaurants we get fresh from Massachusetts," De Mel says. "Big barrels come in once a week -- mussels, clams; oysters; Prince Edward Island, Gulf, Blue Point oysters. It depends on what you're looking for and what season it is."

Ideally, he adds, "You open the box, you smell the ocean." (If you smell dead fish, he agrees, it's well past its prime.)

He contracts with auction houses on the East Coast, primarily in North Carolina and New York; on the West Coast -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle; and in Hawaii.

"We buy it there; they pack it. If we order by 2 p.m. most days, next day it's here," he says.

De Mel says he also deals with wholesalers in Shreveport and Memphis, and from the big regional food suppliers, including Sysco and Ben E. Keith.

His three restaurants together probably bring in as much or more seafood, including sushi-grade fish, as any locally owned area establishment -- 400 pounds a week for Arthur's and Oceans and another 200 pounds at Kemuri.

Fresh seafood costs 15 percent to 20 percent more than frozen, but at the level his restaurants operate, De Mel says, it's worth it.

"Ordering in quantity helps control the cost -- sometimes it's not cost-effective to ship less than 25 or 30 pounds," he says. "Volume helps us get better deals; getting it overnight, it's at a high cost, but we definitely feel it represents the image and standards the Barakat family is known for."

SCALING UP

Sushi-grade fish, which De Mel buys for Oceans and Kemuri, both of which have sushi bars, is even more expensive than fresh. At Oceans, sushi is only part of the menu mix. Kemuri, where the menu is more Asian or Asian fusion, is more "Japanese-seafood-oriented," he says. Most of it comes from suppliers in Chicago, Houston and Dallas.

"It's a different product," he says. "It comes from specialty purveyors, and it needs to be handled differently." That includes limiting its exposure to air.

Paradoxically, perhaps, sushi-grade fish arrives frozen to preserve its freshness. Freezing helps eliminate allergens and bacteria, De Mel says.

He notes that the Japanese harvest the fish using a process called "Ike Jime," which, according to Michelin (guide.michelin.com/sg/dining-out/what-is-ike-jime/news), quickly paralyzes fish and drains them of blood. Done correctly, the four-century-old process helps preserve the fish's flavor and texture by reducing the trauma the fish suffers "before, during and after slaughter."

CHEMICAL-FREE PRODUCT

Mary Beth Ringgold, who also owns three Little Rock restaurants -- Cajun's Wharf, which has always had a seafood-centered menu; Capers; and Copper Grill -- has a different take on the importance of fresh seafood.

"Seafood and many proteins that are in our groceries and restaurants," she explains, primarily processed and pre-packaged seafood, deli meats, pork products, beef and chicken, "are typically heavily saturated in solutions that have a common ingredient, sodium tripolyphosphate, an inorganic compound that causes [it] to absorb excess water. Thus, you are paying for water weight versus the pure protein.

"The seafood industry has become a major player in using chemical additives. As you can imagine, the smaller the protein, the more effect the chemical has on its flavor and texture. For example, shrimp that has been soaked in tripolyphosphate appears opaque and gelatinous. When cooked, it has a slick, rubbery texture and will not become firm or turn that pretty pink and white color of natural shrimp."

According to the Fish Site website (thefishsite.com/articles/warnings-of-sodium-tripolyphosphate-in-fish), the substance, also known by its initials, STPP, "is used to make your seafood appear firmer, smoother and glossier." It's commonly applied to scallops, shrimp "and anything filleted that's very flaky, like hake, sole or imitation crab meat."

But, although the federal Food and Drug Administration has declared STPP as "generally recognized as safe when used in accordance with good manufacturing practice," the site notes that there could be dangers in the chemical beyond just paying extra for water weight: "In large quantities, STPP is a suspected neurotoxin, as well as a registered pesticide and known air contaminant in the state of California."

'SPECIES SWAPPING'

Ringgold says another problem is that there's no oversight on imported fish varieties that require packers to specify the species, origin or the actual feed used in farm-raised fish. "So, 'species swapping' has become a big issue," she says.

Because Arkansas is landlocked, she says, "the best-case scenario for seafood being transported by truck is coming up from the Gulf, [and] the best you can expect from that situation is two days out of the water. Hopefully, handled well and continuously iced.

"For items that are high-usage and have origins farther than an eight-hour trip," she says, she sources "chemical-free products that are 'fresh frozen.'" Producers either process on "freezer boats," sorting, boxing and freezing on the boat as they make their catch; "day boats" bring the catch back daily for processing.

Ringgold's restaurants buy fresh seafood from two companies that supply her by truck from the Gulf of Mexico. "Primarily, we buy fresh shell oysters from them," she says. "Additionally, we specify only chemical-free Canadian cold-water lobster tails. We specify only chemical-free Alaskan king crab legs. Our shrimp is purchased from a single producer who packs only chemical-free Gulf shrimp for us.

"Additionally, we have started a partnership with a company out of New York [that] has a tremendous processing facility. We can go online at 10 p.m. and see their catch for the day, make our order, and it is packaged and air-shipped and on our [loading] dock by 2 the following afternoon. So we are receiving fish for our nightly specials that is sometimes 24 hours out of the water."

LIVE LOBSTERS

"If we can ship live lobsters all the way to Tokyo and Beijing, there's no reason we can't get them here," says Ryan Mahoney, the local agent for his family's East Point Lobster Co.

Mahoney moved to Little Rock eight years ago; his idea is to provide "a taste of New England" to high-end clients in central Arkansas, including the three restaurants De Mel manages; Heights Corner Market, which is also his distribution point -- he has a 60-pound tank on the premises; and several area country and golf clubs. It's a sideline; his day job is as an insurance broker for Stephens Inc.

The Mahoney family, which includes Mahoney's father, Bill; two uncles; and four cousins, has been New England lobster fishermen for more than 40 years. Bill Mahoney, 70, is a Harvard graduate who sails his boat, the "Marilyn M.," named for his wife, out of the tiny peninsula town of Nahant, north of Boston.

Ryan Mahoney explains they ship by "belly freight" (using the spare volume in baggage hold of passenger planes that isn't being used for passenger luggage) via Delta and Southwest out of Boston's Logan Airport. It's primarily live lobsters, but also frozen lobster tails and lobster meat; other fresh shellfish, including scallops, oysters, clams and mussels; fresh fish (haddock, cod, arctic char, salmon, tuna and swordfish); crab meat; and shrimp. All within 24 hours of receiving an order.

"Our goal is to get the seafood from the water to our customers as quickly as possible. All orders are pre-ordered and fulfilled within a 36-hour time window, with established specific delivery windows based on the needs of our customers," according to the company website (eastpointlobster.com).

"Our affiliates are TSA/FDA [Transportation Safety Administration/Food and Drug Administration] pre-approved, which means that there is a seamless transition from the boat, to the sorting/processing facility, to the airplanes, and finally to the customer."

East Point packs its lobsters, oysters and mussels with gel pacs -- "We can't use dry ice anymore," Mahoney explains. "It explodes or something" -- in polystyrene foam boxes, with seaweed and/or newspaper soaked in salt water, to keep them cool and damp. That way they can survive out of water three days "or even longer," Mahoney says.

It's anywhere from 36 to 48 hours from catch, market and shipping to direct delivery to his clients via a refrigerated van, he says.

"Our connections in the Northeast allow us to obtain the freshest seafood as close to 'boat price' as possible," says the company website. "The Mahoney family lobstermen actually see the boat price, which helps us ensure that we are getting our customers the best possible price."

Also, Mahoney says, buying in bulk and "cutting out a lot of middlemen" helps save his clients money.

The Massachusetts dealer to whom East Point sells its lobsters in turn sells most of them to China, which has become increasingly lobster-hungry in recent years, but which recently imposed tariffs on U.S. lobsters as part of a potential all-out, tit-for-tat trade war.

That's a threat to East Point's bottom line. Even before the tariffs went into effect July 6, the price of lobster dropped 50 cents a pound, Bloomberg News reported.

Bill Mahoney predicted to the news outlet earlier this month that China will now turn toward Canada for lobsters instead. And, he expects, "All hell is going to break loose as far as the price."

Photo by Philip Martin
Shrimp tacos at Copper Grill: Bringing in fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico insures it’s chemical-free.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Sushi-grade tuna, frozen to reduce bacteria and allergens, costs more than fresh.
Photo by Cary Jenkins
Mary Beth Ringgold sources chemical-free, fresh seafood from the Gulf and East Coast for her three Little Rock restaurants.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Fresh sea scallops are almost always on the menu at Oceans at Arthur’s.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Salmon is frequently on the menu at Heights Corner Market, one of seafood supplier Ryan Mahoney’s clients.

Style on 07/29/2018

Print Headline: Fish story; Fresh or frozen? Arkansas has to rely on trucks and planes for faster water-to-table seafood

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