A plate of the tiny, mild smelt fish is the perfect finger-food appetizer. Usually served like calamari — fried up in a pile with some sort of dipping sauce — a small plate is enough to share.
Averaging six to eight inches in length, these little guys are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and serious eaters also know smelt for their eggs, frequently found atop your favorite sushi or sashimi. Some people might be thrown off by the bones or attached heads when they are served whole, but the crunch is worth pushing past the squirm factor. Here are four places, from basic to fancy, to try whole smelt.
WildCraft’s smelt is fried and served with pickled peppers and salsa gribiche (a French mayo-based sauce). Chef Tin Vuong buys the fish from New England or Canada depending on the season. Flash-fried in a sourdough-based pizza dough flour after being dipped in buttermilk, the fish are then dusted in a house seasoning made from salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Having eaten smelt since childhood, Chef Tin says it’s “like a poor man’s Southeast Asian tuna.” Order one of the fresh, wood-fired pizzas and call it a night. 9725 Culver Blvd., Culver City; 310-815-8100. wildcraftcc.com
Gussying up a smelt dish with a bit of clam is a welcome addition for this mixed fish plate. Culina’s Misto Mare antipasti unites two great seafoods, each lightly battered and fried. The large smelt are so light, they nearly evaporate in your mouth, and the battered lemon slices can be eaten alone or in tandem with the fish. The classic preparation of fish and acid mixed with a spicy whole grain mustard aioli tartar is familiar, just turned up a notch. Along for the ride is a bright fennel and cherry pepper salad. All together, this appetizer could serve as a light meal. 300 S. Doheny Dr., Los Angeles; 310-860-4000.
A stop along the way in a 14-course tasting menu, Scratch Bar’s smelt dish presents the fish dried out and gorgeously puffed inside a cracker made from sushi rice. The result looks like a fossil preserved on the side of a cave wall. The “cracker” sits on a raspberry-colored “mustard” made from red beets whipped with bone marrow until it has the texture of butter. 111 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-289-8010. scratchbarla.com
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Amy and Neal Fraser guide every detail of your meal at Redbird, from the spectacular retractable roof to the amuse “booze” that greets you upon entry. Hushed and lush without being fussy, a dinner at Redbird, inside the rectory of what used to be the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, is a special experience. And the smelt are everything you could hope for from elevated fried-fish: light and crunchy, tender and delicate, battered in tempura, and served on a pillow of citrus aioli. 114 E. Second St., downtown; 213-788-1191. redbird.la