Shell Games

America's prized bivalve is poised for a comeback as scallops start popping up on menus.
by Kate Leahy
Tags: food trends, scallops, shellfish
Published: Summer 2014
Scallops are making a comeback.

Richard Pease lives about a mile from the port in New Bedford, Mass., where fishermen unload the sea scallops served at Turk’s Seafood in nearby Mattapoisett. Pease, Turk’s general manager, or his brother-in-law Richard Pasquill, the seafood buyer, visits the port daily to purchase scallops directly from the boats for the family-run operation, which includes a restaurant, sushi bar and seafood market. 

On Friday and Saturday nights, Turk’s serves as many as 100 pounds of scallops. Envision half-pound plates of U20s every which way—fried, baked, in sushi, sauteed or broiled, and often topped with little more than breadcrumbs and herbs. 

Pease knows the catch is extremely fresh when a shucked bivalve springs back to the touch. A fresh dry-packed scallop has a little sheen on the surface and feels slightly tacky, like a Post-it note. To check quality, Pease will pop a raw one in his mouth. If there’s a problem, you’ll know “real quick,” he says.

“The price keeps going up,” Pease says. “A couple of years ago, scallops were $11 a pound. Now they are $15 to $18. I want to say that people will stop buying them, but that’s not the case.”Scallop consumption is higher in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country. While consumption has declined over the last few years, availability and diner interest  are increasing, positioning the bivalve for a big comeback. As demand for scallops increases worldwide (most of New Bedford’s scallops are processed to be sold elsewhere), however, so has the cost per pound. 

During the economic slump, shellfish took a hit as consumers curbed their restaurant spending. From 2009 to 2013, shellfish on menus fell 2.9 percent, more than any other protein category, according to menu-tracking service Datassential MenuTrends. Scallops took a 9.2 percent hit during the same period, even more than lobster (which fell 6.8 percent). Yet the bivalve remains the third most popular shellfish menu item, behind shrimp and crab. 

“Scallops have always been an easy sell,” says Portland, Ore.-based Chef-owner Vitaly Paley, who has served them since opening Paley’s Place in 1995. “That said, they are pretty expensive. They’re a luxury item.”

"The thing about scallops is they are both salty and sweet. Those are two things that attract it to a large base of people."

For Paley and many other chefs, scallops have long been valued for their sweetness, versatility, quick fire times and sustainable profile. (Fishing limits have resulted in population resurgences, and scallop-farming endeavors look promising.) In this comeback story, chefs are getting creative with pricing, preparation and protein pairings. 

“If you have a very good quality scallop, the options are endless,” says Jason McClure, executive chef of Sazerac in Seattle. “It’s really about sourcing and then just enjoying the versatility.”

For Starters

McClure, who buys scallops from a local shellfish farm, frequently runs a main course with scallops. But he also finds ways to feature the bivalve in small plates at the bar, either by serving a scallop sliced raw as crudo or accompanying a seared U10 scallop with vegetables or vegetable puree. 

The accompaniments change seasonally—chanterelle mushroom puree drizzled with brown butter in colder months and heirloom tomatoes with citrus vinaigrette in warmer weather, for example—but the accessible price remains a constant. “In a small-plate format, you might have only 50 cents food cost on the rest of the plate,” McClure explains. “You can bring the dish to the menu for $8 or $9.”

Paley gives customers the option of half and full entrees. A half portion of a scallop entree includes two to three ounces of Maine diver scallops, which might be paired with red peppers, bok choy and cilantro pesto for $19. “We started the half-and-full program 10 years ago,” he says. “That’s how we keep the affordability level. It’s fairly easy to swallow a dish for under $20.” 

While Chef-owner Martial Noguier has never faced a problem selling his Chicago audience on scallops, he also watches menu prices, running scallops mainly as an appetizer at his restaurant, Bistronomic. He will pair two seared U10 scallops in a soup or with vegetables such as cauliflower and caper berries, which allows him to keep his food cost at about 26 percent. 

PROTEIN PAIRINGS

When Noguier features scallops as a main course, like in his weekday bouillabaisse special, he augments two ounces of scallops with three ounces of a lower cost seafood.

“When you use expensive foods like scallops, you always want to use something that is not expensive with it,” Noguier says.

Chris Siversen, executive chef and owner of Maritime Parc in Jersey City, N.J., also adds other proteins to the plate when offering scallop entrees. Taking a page from the surf-and-turf playbook, Siversen sets braised short ribs over a spoonful of sauce gribiche and tops them with seared New Jersey U8 scallops and pea tendrils dressed in horseradish vinaigrette. It is one of the restaurant’s most popular main courses. 

“Scallops add a delicacy to the plate,” Siversen says, explaining that the rich texture complements braised meat. And unlike traditional surf-and-turf plates with lobster and steak, he adds, the entree won’t throw his food cost out of line.

RAW DEALS

Scallops are a hit among Napa Valley vacationers dining at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, Calif. “The thing about scallops is they are both salty and sweet,” says Executive Chef Jeffrey Jake, who often serves scallops at the Royal Oak, the property’s steak and seafood restaurant. “Those are two things that attract it to a large base of people.”

Serving scallops raw or barely cooked emphasizes their sweetness, he says. Jake slices U10 sea scallops sashimi-style and shingles the slices down a plate drizzled with ponzu sauce. Before serving, he pours hot sesame oil over the slices and tops them with tempura-battered jalapeños. 

“You haven’t seared the scallop,” Jake explains. “It’s still raw, essentially, so it’s very, very sweet. It does well with the heat from the jalapeño.”

At 100 Steps Supper Club + Raw Bar in Cranford, N.J., Executive Chef Kara Decker barely sears scallops on the top and bottom, slices them in half and serves them with raw oysters and clams, smoked cauliflower, capers and a dash of hot sauce. Co-owner Andrea Carbine explains: “It’s a modified version of a traditional crudo.”

But there’s nothing like serving scallops raw to emphasize the fresh flavor of a quality catch. At Andina, a modern Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Ore., Executive Chef Hank Costello serves scallops tiradito style, the Peruvian answer to sashimi. He will serve a sliced U8 scallop with a passion fruit or tart orange sauce, but he especially likes it with olive oil, sea salt, lime zest and a couple of drops of vinegar. “You can really get the flavor of the scallop,” he says.

With scallops, it appears the world is your oyster.  

Kate Leahy is a San Francisco-based food writer and cookbook author who is up to her ears in flour working on a cookie cookbook. 


While fresh scallops don’t come cheap, the same isn’t so for mussels, which can run as low as $2 to $3 a pound. Chefs aren’t ignoring the bivalve’s value proposition. From 2009 to 2013, the percentage of restaurants across the country with mussels on the menu grew 3.8 percent to 16.5 percent, according to Datassential MenuTrends. 

At Maritime Parc in Jersey City, N.J., mussels cooked Thai-curry style—in a broth of coconut milk and white wine flavored with kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and fish sauce—have been a hit at brunch, says Chef-owner Chris Siversen. After steaming the mussels in the sauce, Siversen removes them from the pot and cooks down the liquid slightly. He finishes the sauce with butter before adding the mussels back to the pot. From start to finish, cooking time is about 10 minutes. “The cost is much better than any other appetizer on our menu,” he says. 

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