Where once serving an actual can of food in a restaurant would be frowned upon, now many eateries have embraced the glory of tinned fish, and so have the diners.
"Tinned fish definitely has a following. There are people out there looking for it and we cater to those people," said Tim Kuklinski, culinary director of Crafted Concepts restaurant group, which sells around seven varieties of the product at the group's restaurant Ultreia in Denver. "Not everyone is willing to go out and spend $20 on tinned fish unless they understand it."
In fact, Kuklinski said the menu of Spanish tapas and small plates partially got built around the canned fish offerings, which are also referred to as "conserva" at many restaurants. Prices range from $36 trout fillets from José Gourmet in Portugal to $24 branzino from Iasa in Italy, to $22 octopus from Spanish company Portomar. Each order comes with potato chips, aïoli and pimentón hot sauce.
For Haley Fortier, owner of Haley.Henry Wine Bar and Nathálie Wine Bar in Boston, tinned fish was also an original part of the menu when she opened her restaurants in 2016.
"I wanted to bring to the Boston culinary world something that I really loved eating and that wasn’t present on any menus in the city, tinned fish," said Fortier, adding that the popularity of the fish has really grown over the past few years. "I think between their online Instagrammable presentations of design and the fact that they are a sustainable food item that carries a lot of health benefits, people have really stormed the boat in terms of getting their hands on as much tinned fish as possible."
Canned fish was once looked at as cheap or inferior food, but Fortier said now people realize how good it really is. The fish usually get harvested at the perfect time and are canned immediately. It's as fresh as someone can get without actually eating freshly caught fish.
"We’re talking about incredibly high quality fish, not the end scraps of a by-product," she said. Plus, she added, "the fish are full of Omega-3 [heart-healthy fat] and are absolutely delicious."
One of Fortier's favorite producers is Portuguese company DaMorgada, which make up about half of the tinned fish on the menu ranging from $20 smoked trout to $14 spiced sardines to $20 roasted cod. Overall the prices at Haley.Henry Wine Bar range from $14, up to $28 per tin and the various accoutrements.
At the two locations of Denver's Cart Driver, a Neapolitan pizza joint known not just for its pies, but its conserva program as well, tinned fish as always had a bit of wow factor.
"It's the fajita effect, if you will,” said Brian Wilson, executive chef of the location in the Lower Highlands, or LoHi, neighborhood. “There is something about having a steaming piada, our fresh baked sourdough ball, with all these little accoutrements [including tinned fish]. It's pretty intriguing.”
The dish of tinned sardines, piada bread, seasonal compound butter and sambal is $16, except during happy hour when it’s $8.
At the other Cart Driver location, in River North, diners have even more choices of tinned fish, which come with a similar set up as the LoHi spot and priced about the same.
The staff love it too, Wilson said, which helps them sell it to customers who may not have tried canned sardines or mackerel conserva. And most people that do try it become instant fans, Wilson said.
Kuklinski said choosing to showcase tinned fish isn't just a matter of taste. It also aligns with the restaurant group’s philosophy when it comes to seafood.
"A lot of these canneries work with local fisherman who harvest when the fish is in season, so they aren't over fishing,” he said. They prepare it and can it when the fish is at its best. We want to have the work the people put into the can, whether in Spain or Italy or wherever it comes from, and let it shine, let the fish be the fish."
Stocking up on tinned fish can also be a smart choice economically. Kuklinski said Ultreia can buy the goods in bulk, which always proves to be a better deal. And it has a long shelf life, so if that $36 octopus doesn't sell right away the restaurant doesn't lose money.
"Most tins can stand three to five years on a shelf without refrigeration, and that impacts food waste tremendously," Fortier said. "It’s a great way to balance out the budget, having something reliable that you know will be sustainable for a long period of time."
Kuklinski said the tinned fish is a draw for customers.
"Specifically at Ultreia, it sets them apart since it's a special thing they do and people come back for it," said Kuklinski. "It's not for everybody, but we do sell it every night."