Chef Luis Herrera remembers when he first started cooking with skate: New York City, 2013. The now-closed Italian restaurant where he worked served the fish as piccata, pan-seared with butter and capers. “I remember the thought of it at that moment,” Herrera says. “How does the fish have almost a chicken-like texture?” Because skate has cartilage instead of the typical bones, its flesh can be cut as filets off its wing, or served on the wing, as some restaurants do, for diners to scrape off themselves. A white fish like hake will flake, but skate is dense and ropy.
Today, Herrera is well-acquainted with skate, which is part of the ray family. When it’s on the menu at Ensenada, the seafood restaurant in Brooklyn where he’s executive chef and partner, cooks batter the flesh, fry it, and serve it with mole, pickled fennel, and tortillas for DIY tacos. Last year, former Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton considered it his “taco of the year.”
Ensenada’s dish is just one example of skate’s growing buzz. In 2016, the Washington Post called it “a perplexing fish,” writing that, in the United States, only high-end restaurants like Le Bernardin cared to take the time to work with it, and home cooks didn’t use it either. But in recent years, skate’s prominence — and coolness — has risen at wine bars and restaurants across the country, which is promising for chefs, home cooks, and fishers alike.
Some chefs are drawing inspiration from skate’s greater presence abroad. Laila Bazahm, of the new tapas spot El Raval in Austin, Texas, links the fish to her former homes of Spain and Singapore. In the hawker centers of the latter, skate is rubbed with belacan, wrapped in banana leaves, and grilled. In Barcelona, it’s cooked a la plancha. In a nod to that experience — El Raval is named for a Barcelona neighborhood — Bazahm is developing a dish featuring skate cooked in a charcoal oven, then finished with Basque pil pil sauce, a cod-based emulsion.
Though skate and other rays are also common fare in England, where he grew up, chef Ed Szymanski doesn’t recall seeing the fish as much when he moved to New York City in 2014. “Now it’s more ubiquitous,” Szymanski says. His buzzy New York City restaurants Dame and Lord’s have likely helped facilitate skate’s prevalence in the city.
His favorite preparation so far has been Dame’s skate Kiev, which showed off the fish two ways: half cooked in brown butter, and half wrapped around parsley butter before being dredged and fried. And although skate generally appears on menus as a wing or filet, Dame also uses the niche skate cheeks, which it serves with kedgeree rice.
Fried skate is especially popular. That’s how it has recently appeared at NYC’s Atoboy, Cervo’s, Patti Ann’s, and Place des Fêtes. At Chicago’s Obelix, it takes a Japanese bent as a skate wing katsu, and at LA’s Majordomo, fried skate has been served with fried rice. In the U.K., it’s frequently used in fish and chips. Meanwhile, following the French tradition of pan-searing, Chicago’s Le Tour serves it with capers and brown butter.
There are compelling arguments in favor of skate. For one thing, a pound of cod filets retails for $14.99 from New York City seafood purveyor Aqua Best, while the same amount of skate wing, which can also be bought fileted, runs $7.99; a pound of halibut is $34.99. “It’s pretty easy to get,” Herrera says. “We’ve never had a problem with a shortage of skate.”
That abundance is why chef Nick Deutmeyer of Harvest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, likes it. “There’s a lot of species that are eaten pretty widely,” Deutmeyer says. “If we keep consuming them the way that we are, there’s not really [going to be] anything left. I think skate is one of those fish that is a little lesser-known, and so, not as many people eat it.” The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch lists several kinds of skate as certified, or otherwise not depleted or experiencing overfishing.
Currently at Harvest, Deutmeyer encrusts skate with cornmeal and serves it with clam chowder. While the dining public’s lack of familiarity with the fish might dissuade some chefs from putting skate on the menu, Deutmeyer says diners are interested; skate sells “just as well” as any other white fish. A restaurant introduction might then push diners to consider the fish at home.
Jared Auerbach, CEO of the Boston-based seafood company Red’s Best, is pleased to hear that skate is popping up on menus “because that is what we’re seeing a lot of in our oceans,” he says. Though skate fishing has always been strong in New England, “historically, we’ve had a lot of dependence on foreign markets as demand centers for skate,” he says. Korea, for example, imports large amounts from the U.S., and cooks there prepare it many ways. It’s not uncommon to see skate in Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and Honolulu — Kobawoo serves it steamed with its bo ssam and Sorabol mixes it raw into naengmyeon.
With his company acting as an intermediary between commercial fishers and wholesalers and distributors, “it’s our job to make the market” by creating demand for “very, very abundant local seafood,” Auerbach says. West Coast skate is similarly underutilized despite abundance, as San Francisco chef Peter Hemsley has noted.
Red’s Best hopes to get domestic consumers to be “more open-minded and flexible” about the seafood they consume, Auerbach explains. That would look like more people thinking that dinner doesn’t have to be “haddock tonight, no matter what, because I like haddock,” he says, but shifting their diets to include a greater diversity of fish, including skate.
While a lot of skate continues to be exported, that foreign demand has been tempered by an increase in domestic demand, Auerbach says. Whereas home cooks were once hindered by a “lack of spontaneous availability,” as the Washington Post wrote, it’s now easier — at least in NYC — to even order skate online. According to Auerbach, “When we land a lot of skate, people buy it.”
At Lord’s, serving skate has come with one unexpected risk. At times, the restaurant has served both steak and skate on the same menu. “People mishear each other and they order the wrong thing — and then the fish comes out and they want the beef, or vice versa,” Szymanski says. “It’s not ideal, but it happens.”