The Oakland restaurant scene is finally taking a modest step towards catching up with San Francisco in the sustainable sushi business. Next month, Boston-area transplant Luis Sanchez will be opening a new locally sourced Uptown restaurant called Torpedo Sushi, the first sushi bar in the city to prioritize serving fish that has been sustainably sourced. (San Francisco’s Tataki became the first entirely sustainable sushi restaurant in North America in 2008.)
Sanchez is aiming to get 80 percent of his fish from day boats off the northern coast of California and to follow the recommendations of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List. “When you come to the Bay Area you learn a lot about being responsible,” he says. “It inspires you to push your quality and to think about your impact.”
Some of sushi’s staples, like eel and bluefin tuna are notoriously unsustainable. Unlike Tataki, Torpedo will still be offering eel, despite its classification by the Seafood Watch List as an item to avoid, but it will replace bluefin with local albacore. Although Sanchez does want to rely on fresh, local fish whenever possible, he acknowledges that he’s prepared to find less environmentally friendly sources from a wholesaler when supplies are low. “If I need to call an audible so that I can open the doors,” he says, “I’m gonna do that.”
Joseph Conte, owner of the distribution company Water 2 Table and supplier to Torpedo Sushi and dozens of restaurants throughout the Bay Area, notes that sourcing locally is a nightly gamble in the seafood world.
“There needs to be an understanding that we’re not raising chickens here,” he says. “[Fish] is the only wild animal on the menu.”
Conte has been fishing recreationally in the Bay Area his whole life, and spent much of his career working as a manager in restaurants. He decided to bridge the two worlds a few years ago, starting a business where he would pick up the daily catch from local fishermen and deliver it fresh to a few restaurants in San Francisco. The business soon took off, and Conte now delivers to 16 restaurants in Oakland alone.
These days, Conte relies almost exclusively on small hook and line vessels that are at sea for just a day or two, as opposed to larger boats that spend nearly a week at sea. This means that the fish are delivered almost directly from the water, rather than having to be frozen.
For a small business like Torpedo Sushi, the benefits of this service are significant. As a local alternative to bluefin tuna, whose stock has been drastically depleted worldwide, Sanchez will be ordering local albacore. In sushi circles, albacore is often dismissed by chefs, who dislike the fact that it falls apart easily and dries out quickly—a problem that vanishes when the fish goes from the water to the kitchen in the same day. “It’s freaking phenomenal,” Sanchez says.
Still, sourcing locally has its perils. Just this last week, the fishing boats that supply Conte with salmon, halibut and albacore were hampered by high winds, leaving Conte well short of what his clients needed. And on Friday the 13th, Sanchez says, he received an email warning him that the superstitions of the fishermen would make for a lean haul. “When you’re working with fish that is only available 70 percent of the time, that requires some imagination on the part of the chef,” Conte says.
For his part, Sanchez embraces the challenge. In Boston, where he was a part owner of a restaurant, there was little push for environmental awareness. But here in Oakland it’s virtually a requirement. “It’s almost judgmental,” he says. “To stay competitive and be a hip new restaurant you kind of have to be sustainable.”