Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Downtowner Kitchen, fighting lionfish invasion one plate at a time


Some people find peace through meditation. Others pray.  For the nearly-twenty years I lived in Florida, I found equilibrium underwater, scuba-diving on coral reefs. When I stepped off the boat and the water closed over my head, reality changed.  Noise diminished. The horizon faded. I felt weightless, buoyed by air in my equipment and balanced by long slow deep breaths. 

As I heard the mechanical rasp of my breath in the mouthpiece, my heart-rate slowed. I n h a l e, feel the lungs fill. E x h a l e,  a slow stream of bubbles dribbled up, disappearing in the blue.

Below and around were reefs, natural cities of plants and animals in browns, blues, greens, oranges and yellows. Soft corals waving in the current, lacy sea fans rippling. Bright yellow tube sponges tucked into crevices. Hard corals as green and brown boulders or shaped like pointed antlers. 

In, around and above it all lived a plethora of fish. A vibant meditation of form, color and movement.

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Photo credit: Daryl Duda, courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/REEF.org/
But in the last decade, an imported predator released from home aquariums has begun to decimate reef fish populations in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. 

Lionfish photo courtesy Reef.org
Lionfish, a carnivorous fish with long venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific. The fish live in warm-water reefs, reproducing year-round. According to NOAA, a mature female releases about two million eggs a year. As lionfish have multiplied in non-native regions where there are no natural predators for it, reef fish populations have suffered.

In recognition of the danger, groups such as REEF, a nonprofit marine education and conservation group, have begun to fight back through education, lionfish roundups and more. Reef even publishes a lionfish cookbook to encourage folks to harvest and eat the fish.

As longtime REEF members, my husband Denny and I have contributed reef fish surveys to the database and are happy about efforts to reduce the lionfish threat.

But what could we do in the Texas Hill Country? The answer appeared at happy hour last week after a friend called me to meet her at The Downtowner Kitchen. Over a glass of wine, she told me they serve lionfish. 

Sounded good to me--I'm tickled to help make a market for lionfish by eating them at a fun cafe in New Braunfels. Good eating and good for the planet.

The Downtowner Kitchen in New Braunfels has an eclectic feel.
We like The Downtowner anyway for its cool vibe, interesting menu, local brew-list and eclectic wines.





Not to mention a local DJ named Barrett Read who spins "Soul Brunch" on the weekends.

Last week I went twice. And I'm letting you in on it now so you can feel like a local too when you ask for lionfish. You won't see it on the menu even though it's a regular offering, flown in fresh from Florida. Owner/Executive Chef Chad Niland hasn't printed it on the menu because he doesn't want to disappoint if weather interferes with the harvesting, which is done by spearfishing.

For folks who wonder about eating venomous fish, it might set your mind at ease to know that the fillets are from the sides of the fish, away from the venom in the dorsal, anal and pectoral spines. Still curious? Check this video:


Most folks like lionfish because it's a mild white fish with a delicate texture when cooked. Chef Chad does several lionfish dishes, each with separate appeal. Some are only served at dinner. I've tried three but others are on my radar.

Grilled lionfish at The Downtowner Kitchen in New Braunfels, TX.
The most showy and biggest is a whole grilled fish delivered to the table in a satiny sweet, salty, slightly tangy glaze. The fish takes 30 minutes to grill, time for patrons to enjoy an appetizer, glass of wine and good conversation. By the way, the spiked rice underneath is addicting, and your choice of side-dish is included. Priced at $40, it's plenty for two and would make a great date-night dinner.


Blackened lionfish sandwich, The Downtowner Kitchen, New Braunfels, TX.
Denny enjoyed a blackened lionfish sandwich, accompanied by house-made pickles and crisp lattice chips. The portion of fish was moderate but the seasonings added to the oomph. $18.


My favorite was an appetizer, lionfish ceviche. The preparation requires 24 hours for the fish to "cook" in the lime juice. It's only available on weekends to take advantage of additional traffic. Any uneaten ceviche is discarded at the end of each day.
I loved the sweetness and al dente texture of the fish, the interplay of tang from lime juice and minced jalapenos, crunch from red onion, an herbal note of cilantro, a touch of smoothness from aioli.  Served with fried tortilla chips, it was a happy marriage in the mouth of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Reminded me of Caribbean visits. $20.


A note about prices, lionfish is hand-speared and flown in, just two fillets per fish, so the price per pound of usable meat is not low. But it's a price worth paying, both for the experience and for the reefs.

Want to enjoy yourself and feel good about helping the coral ecosystem? Check out the lionfish dishes at The Downtowner Kitchen.
The Downtowner Kitchen





Then tell me what you think.

Copyright 2009-2017 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

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