Fish Story: On one visit, Seasons Rotisserie & Grill (see this week's Cafe review) offered a tempting seafood special: pan-seared escolar, served with a calypso bean-cremini mushroom ragout, watercress and lemon-sage aioli.
Fashionable and delicious, escolar started showing up on Valley menus about five years ago. Found in the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico and South Pacific, it seems to have everything today's restaurant patrons want from fish: It's delicate, rich, low in calories and marvelously tasty.
But escolar has one formidable drawback. For some people -- I emphasize some -- escolar acts as a powerful laxative.
According to the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration has long been aware of the problem. About a decade ago, the agency issued a bulletin recommending the fish not be sold. (The Japanese have banned it since 1977.) But in 1998, the FDA withdrew its escolar alert, declaring the fish nontoxic.
Since then, escolar has become a trendy item. And while its popularity is up, so are complaints.
What gives the fish its textural and taste appeal are wax esters. They're similar to what's in Olestra, a fake fat used to reduce calories in snack foods. Humans can't digest these wax esters. What results, according to Harold McGee, in a paper he delivered at the 1997 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, isn't pretty: "The wax esters therefore pass intact, their lubricating properties undiminished, from the small intestine into the colon, where a sufficient quantity will defeat our normal control over the ultimate disposition of food residues."
In plain English, that simply means escolar can send some folks to the bathroom in a great hurry.
As if escolar's potential purgative effects aren't enough to make diners wary, there's another worry. Mishandling can cause scombroid poisoning, which produces diarrhea, vomiting and edema. And you can't cook the problem away.
Valley seafood restaurants take different approaches to escolar. The Fish Market stopped carrying it years ago. According to general manager Jay Maderic, the fish was a top seller -- it even "outsold swordfish," he reports. And guests thought it was "absolutely luscious."
So did Maderic. But he noticed he lost bowel control after eating it. More important, so did a number of very unhappy guests. After the company found out about the FDA's advisory, escolar disappeared from the menu.
At Steamers, where the fish gets rolled in pecan flour and baked, escolar remains quite popular. According to the kitchen manager, Steamers is careful to keep portion size at six ounces. "Anything more," he says, "can tear your insides out."
Rich Huie, owner of the Salt Cellar, no longer carries it. He's concerned about "quality control" and "intestinal discomfort." What's more, his customers never showed much fondness for it.
Should you eat escolar? I never had any problem. But the power of suggestion is so strong that right now I couldn't eat it even if I were accompanied by Mr. Whipple. -- Howard Seftel
Suggestions? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix, AZ 85002.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.