You Can Usually Skip the Tinned Fish When Dining Out
But you can still find very good conservas at a few places, including at Saint Julivert, Bonnie's, and Cart-Driver
The bivalves are tan and plump. They soak up a broth of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. The liquid trembles when I peel back the aluminum cover, and a faint aroma of brine perfumes my countertop. I could eat them as is, but I prefer to heat them up in a sauce pan. Then I get to work.
The aftermath isn’t comely. Red oil stains my t-shirt and collects around the sink’s basin. Used napkins, crumpled and torn, litter my workspace. Fingerprints appear on a glass holding a few sips of mezcal. And if there’s maybe a single mussel left behind, I’ll pinch it between my thumb and index finger, and lower it into my mouth like a cartoon cat would.
A good tinned mussel doesn’t wobble like a freshly steamed one; it can feel coarse on the tongue. But as you chew the warm mollusk, it releases a clean musk. It recalls a windy day on the docks. If tomatoes are involved, and they usually are, it’s as if you’re exhaling the flavors of concentrated Manhattan chowder. It’s an impressive thing, really. This shellfish — canned long ago and far away — somehow tastes more like an actual mussel that most fresh mussels steamed at a brasserie.
Now here’s something more surprising to hear from a restaurant critic: A few exceptions aside, I don’t typically enjoy eating tinned fish at restaurants.
An argument against (most) tinned fish at New York restaurants
Some of us have fond memories of our post-pandemic jaunts to the Iberian peninsula, but New York isn’t Barcelona or Lisboa — cities where one can reliably grab a tin of sardines and a glass of wine for a decent price. New York is where a snack-sized order of preserved scallops and a nice albariño can set you back $40 or more.
And you’ll still need to get dinner afterwards.
The act of eating tinned fish, once a humble pastime, has become a performative lifestyle signifier. This bologna has become mortadella — thanks to more Americans traveling to Portugal, gourmet shops like Despaña and Mercado Little Spain making fancy varieties more accessible, and the dark id of TikTok making a trend out of everything.
Canned sardines and their slippery ilk are slowly creeping onto menus across town, though not in ways that speak to the creativity or skill of a good kitchen. The tins are simply showing up as tins. There is no cooking. There is rarely warm bread to bring the fish back to life. And chefs accompany the ready-to-eat fare with little more than the generic accoutrements one might find at Whole Foods: a few saltines, cold, forgettable sourdough, and a dose of supermarket-quality butter.
The situation isn’t as crazy as what’s happening with caviar — where an oligopoly of hip restaurants are marking up the same handful of widely available roes, pandering to diners with lazy luxury. But tinned fish feels as if it’s slowly moving in that posh direction.
Restaurants are charging a premium to open a can — and so diners can get that ‘gram.
Other writers aren’t entirely pleased with the situation either, at restaurants — or at one particular shop. “In our ongoing canned-fish era, you could absolutely pay for a tin of sardines at spots like Le Dive or Pastis — the latter of which nearly Joker-fied me at $20,” New York Magazine’s E. Alex Jung wrote this summer, before going on to say nicer things about a house-cured sardine dish at Le Rock.
Eater’s Amy McCarthy had even tougher words. In an essay headlined “Stop Trying to Convince Me Tinned Fish Is the Height of Luxury,” she writes the following: “if I’m never asked to pay $20 for a plate of cold, canned sardines at a restaurant again, it will be too soon.” That missive followed the opening of the Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines in Midtown; you know things are reaching the summit of Peak Ridic when the mothership starts building Times Square boutiques. My ex-colleague Robert Sietsema wasn’t exactly wowed by the $44 gold leaf sardines at that tourist-y souvenir shop, and neither was Ben Cost of the New York Post, who wrote: “It was a cool gimmick that ultimately felt a bit like throwing rims on a Volvo.”
It would be too bad if that Times Square chain — or chic restaurants peddling mediocre tinned fish — turned off newbies from conservas altogether. The best preserved seafood, like those mussels I mentioned before, can flaunt the layered coastal perfumes you’d expect from good uni.
Smart curation is good…but it’s not enough
As I said, there are exceptions to my “avoid canned fish at restaurants” maxim. “Tin to Table,” Anna Hezel’s excellent guide to eating and cooking with conservas, precisely conveys how I feel about venues with smart collections:
“…a whole wave of bars and restaurants in the United States have added tins to their menus, putting as much thought and care into curating their selections as they put into their wine lists.”
Hezel is correct. A good bar exposes folks to conservas they wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere, just like a good sommelier introduces wine drinkers to funky pét-nats they wouldn’t have found at a local liquor shop.
That’s one of the reasons I occasionally don’t mind snacking on conservas at El Pingüino in Greenpoint. I get to talk to a bartender and they’ll maybe steer me towards my first encounter with green curry tuna, the silky flesh delicately perfumed with notes of spice. Or perhaps a staffer will suggest mussels escabeche, the meat infused with a hint of tang.
If only the conservas at El Pingüino came with more than a bit of aioli, a hot pepper, and a bunch of saltines. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to knock a chef for letting fish speak for itself — you wouldn’t criticize a restaurant for only serving mignonette with pristine oysters, right?
But these aren’t pristine mollusks; these are pricey preserved fishes that could use a little help, like a few slices of warm, crusty bread. In that department El Pingüino offers a cold chunk of sourdough for $5; it’s too dense and chewy for the nuanced seafood.
Things get more complicated when the fish itself isn’t very good. An $18 tin of mackerel at Pingüino was as overcooked as a can of tuna from Safeway. That brings up one of my central rules:
If you’re eating conservas at a restaurant, your tinned fish shouldn’t be a heck of a lot worse than widely available fresh product that costs as much (or less).
That doesn’t mean conservas have to be delicious in the same way as something from a local raw bar; we’re talking about preserved foods, after all. The whole point is to be able to enjoy them anywhere, anytime. But if you’re paying a premium (in a coastal city, no less), the tinned fish shouldn’t be aggressively inferior to the other seafood you love.
Take a nice octopus. Cook it with care and you have a meaty core, crispy suction cups, and a jiggly layer of gelatin. It is a textual marvel. Then there’s the Portuguese pulpo at Maiden Lane. The texture is rubber. It packs the complexity of microwaved chicken breast. Cost: $22 (try the marshmallow-like scallops viera instead for $18).
Or consider the cockle. Steam them and you have something briny, sweet, or perhaps even a touch metallic. What happens when you can them? Well, according to Vogue, they can take on the subtle taste of truffles, and if I ever experience that I’ll buy you all Ferraris. The $34 Espinaler cockles I sampled at Pingüino, by contrast, packed such an industrial aluminum tang that eating each one was like making out with the Terminator T-1000.
Here’s a good alternative: Get chef Nick Padilla’s excellent clams steamed in white wine and smoked pimenton ($20).
Behind the paywall: On Saint Julivert, Bonnie’s, and Cart-Driver
Indeed, curation is only part of the equation. Restaurants can also do something that’s a bit more rewarding with conservas. They can flex their culinary muscles, matching the fish with ingredients not readily available at home, or blending them seamlessly into a composed dish.