Where the Fish is Fresh 

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I've thrown a lot of stinky fish away. It's dinnertime, everyone's hungry, and I open my plastic package from the grocery store. Instead of smelling a faintly briny whiff of the sea, I'm blasted by a foul and pungent fishy smell only a seagull could love.

It's frustrating, because inevitably I don't have a backup plan for dinner (I'm usually grateful I have a plan at all), and frankly, I'd rather slam the fish into the trash can with a loud expletive than stink up the car with it and march back into the store demanding a refund.

So, instead, I quietly hate the grocery store and vow never to buy fish there again. Until, of course, at the end of a tiring day, when I can't find the energy to make another stop on an endless round of errands, I decide to take a chance on whatever's available at the seafood counter.

Tired of this hit-or-miss approach, I began to search for fresh fish a little more methodically, choosing some better-known seafood stores around town to find out which fish smelled and tasted best.

For the first go-round, I tried wild salmon, because it's fairly forgiving to cook, most people love it, and when it's in season (May through September), it's almost always flown in fresh. Tilapia was my choice on another day because it, too, is usually fresh this time of year, and its mild flavor makes it versatile and easy to cook.

I discovered that the chances of finding tasty, fresh fish are pretty good right now. All the wild salmon I tried had arrived in the store the day before I bought it, according to the person behind the counter, and all of it was a vibrant orange-red, had little odor and tasted great when cooked quickly on a hot grill. The tilapia I tried was mostly fresh and stink-free, too, with exception of Ellwood Thompson's (it went into the trash). And extra credit has to be given to Tan-A Supermarket, with its tanks of live tilapia behind the counter and the widest variety of fish available in town.

Checking for clear eyes is a great way to gauge freshness when your fish still has its head on, as it does at Tan-A, but most of us are uncomfortable when our food looks back at us, and lots of little bones can be annoying.

For all-around reliability and consistent variety in filleted fish, both Yellow Umbrella Fresh Seafood and Bon Air Seafood won me over with their plump, tightly textured, glistening fillets and virtually odor-free stores. My most important discovery, however, was one I'd known all along but somehow managed to forget: Eat your fish the day you buy it. Every day it lingers in your refrigerator, you lose quality. And that kind of stinky fish you can't blame on anybody but yourself.

Now What?

So you have your fresh fish. What do you do with it? Chef Lee Gregory of Six Burner Restaurant calls the following recipe "as simple as it gets." And while he suggests using rockfish, any light, flaky fish will work just as well. Serve the fish with mashed potatoes, rice or on a bed of greens.

Roasted Rockfish
4 6-ounce fillets (scaled, with skin left on)
2 lemons, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Season fish with salt and pepper.
On the stovetop, place a nonstick, ovenproof pan over medium heat. Pour in olive oil, and when the pan starts to smoke, place fish in pan, skin side down, and cook for 30 seconds. (Don't move fish while cooking to ensure evenly crispy skin.) Add thyme, butter and sliced lemon to the pan, and remove from heat.

Place pan in oven and bake for approximately 8 minutes.
Serves four.

Get Hooked Here

Bon Air Seafood
2722 Tinsley Drive
Monday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Different varieties of fish arrive daily.

Carytown Seafood
3107 W. Cary St.

Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Fish arrives Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Ellwood Thompson Market
4 N. Thompson St.
Open daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Fish arrives Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

P.T. Hastings Famous Seafoods
3545 W. Cary St.
Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Fish arrival varies.

Tan-A Supermarket6221 W. Broad St.

Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Fish arrival varies.

Yellow Umbrella Fresh Seafood
5600 Patterson Ave.
Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Different fish varieties arrive daily.

B.P. Fox is a regular restaurant critic for Style Weekly. E-mail your questions or story ideas about the Richmond food scene to belle@style




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