This summer, I first experienced the fish called escolar and have since tried it in three different restaurants. I have learned its pleasure. I have learned its pain.
Escolar is a deep water fish with a high oil content in its muscle tissue. It has a strong flavor that reminds me of swordfish or tuna, but milder and butterier. It is utterly delicious.
I first tried a small serving of escolar carpaccio in Austin at Uchi. The fish was sliced thinly. In its raw form, it had the texture of a scallop. Even in this small quantity, the rich flavor of a fish was a revelation.
I also tried a special at Blue Fish House called spicy escolar roll . It is the typical Blue Fish House roll: lots of sweet sauce, very spicy, suited to the American palate. Yet the flavor of the escolar was strong enough to stand up to the sweet and spicy treatment.
My best escolar experience was grilled escolar at Bistro Moderne. The menu describes it as a "pave of fish with asparagus, soft polenta and borberry (?) vinaigrette." It was, for Bistro Moderne, a surprisingly American preparation. Grilling escolar brings out the full richness of its flavors. The subtle side dishes and sauce left the rich flavor of the escolar to speak for itself.
As much as I love this fish, it has a dark side. The oil in escolar is not digested in humans. That is good for the diet. But it is not so good for our gastrointestinal system. Escolar has earned the nickname "Ex-Lax fish." In portions over 6 ounces, it causes a condition known as keriorrhoea, which rhymes with another, very similar, malady. The Japanese have banned it since 1977. In the U.S., the FDA banned escolar in 1990, but reversed itself a few years later. As one Los Angeles chef said, "It is . . . sort of a crap shoot."
With the small portions at Uchi and Blue Fish House, I had no problems. But the grilled escolar at Bistro Moderne was well over 6 ounces. It was easily the best dish, but it also caused the most pain the next day. Perhaps I should have stopped at about six ounces, but that was far too difficult to do.
There is something intriguing about eating food that may hurt us. The Japanese love fugu, which prepared improperly, is lethal. I recently have noticed a number of new TV shows about hosts who dare to eat strange, disgusting foods around the world. Eating these foods can be a shock to our system, yet we love the challenge. I am reminded of the title of Robb Walsh's excellent book, Are You Really Going To Eat That?
To which I answer, "Hell yes. May I please have more escolar?"