Around Town

Can Charlotte support a fresh-seafood scene?

As someone who has lived among the seafood snobs of Charleston (typed with love), I’ve been surprised to notice more seafood-centric restaurants sprouting up in Charlotte.

First, there was ROCKSALT, whose ceviche/oyster-studded small plates came to Park Road Shopping Center just over a year ago. It joined the scene with Upstream at Phillips Place and McCormick & Schmick’s at SouthPark.

Then there was Sea Level, which opened uptown in February and boasts a menu with “fun food” items like the shrimp steam bun and sandwiches like the catfish reuben.

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Catfish Reuben at Sea Level NC. CharlotteFive archives

And, most recently, Meat & Fish Co. opened in Dilworth last week to share deli items like the Nicoise sandwich loaded with their featured catch of the day.

So is Charlotte, in all its landlocked glory, capable of supporting a fresh-seafood scene?

It’s certainly trying.

Acting general manager Jason Jepsky said Sea Level’s owner Paul Manley partnered with an oyster farm in Sea Level, N.C., to provide the majority of their house oysters.

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“The whole concept was basically to have a good oyster raw bar… and then have a really farm-to-fork-driven restaurant,” Jepsky said. “The biggest thing is, people want fresh.”

The restaurant has no freezers, he said, so they change their fish menu a lot to keep up with what’s fresh — and to share more of a spectrum with Charlotte. Their fresh catch is on a two-day cycle at most and they try to source mostly from North Carolina to support local, while some items like lobsters are shipped in live from Maine, along with mussels.

ROCKSALT doesn’t freeze any of its fish either. A spokesperson said the fish comes in multiple times a week through Inland Seafood and local fisherman Tim Griner, while the oysters come from the Rappahannock River Oysters farm in Virginia.

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Over in Dilworth, I couldn’t get a comment about whether or not any of the fish at Meat & Fish Co. is frozen, but one way the business works to ensure freshness is through a contract with FedEx Ground that guarantees next-day delivery anywhere in North and South Carolina.

And it’s not just about the restaurants — home chefs can create a fresh-seafood scene for themselves, depending on where they purchase the goods.

Jim Seidel, owner of Carolina Fish Market in Ballantyne, said fresh fish matters because it flat out tastes better. He explained how frozen fish causes water to freeze in the muscle fibers of meat, changing the flavor profile.

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Seidel’s first priority for sourcing seafood is from the Carolina coastal area, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulates sport and commercial fishing across the Southeast, so there are times certain fish varieties, like grouper, along the Carolina coast are not available.

Regardless — there’s a reason he tries to stick to the Carolina coast. “I can get it to the market much quicker, it’s much more fresh — really, it’s supporting our local economy,” he said.

Seidel buys smaller amounts of seafood to make sure nothing stays in his store for more than two days, whether he buys directly from the boats at Cherry Point in Charleston (think Mahi Mahi and Triggerfish), or whether he buys through suppliers like 3Fish and Inland Seafood.

Charlotte’s greatest potential as a fresh-seafood city may be that it’s not complicated to bring fresh fish to the area.

“I can leave Ballantyne and put my toe in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Charleston in three hours,” Seidel said.

All that’s left is bringing back the catch.

Photos: Katie Toussaint

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