Now that lionfish have infested waters around Florida, divers have been urged to remove them when they see them.
While there may be enjoyment from simply feeding them a few prongs of steel, I now suggest anyone who has the opportunity and means to bring lionfish home for food, do so.
"Lionfish is awesome in terms of the quality of the fish," said Ed Chiles, owner of The Beach House, Sandbar and Mar Vista restaurants. "Although the filets are small, it makes a great crudo ("raw fish" in Italian). The meat has a translucent, pearly quality to it."
For Chiles, the demand has began to rise as the word has gotten out about the fantastic table fare it provides. But most people are scared to deal with them while on the water, as their intimidating appearance and venomous fins are a danger to people who handle them. The few times I've been a part of hook and lining lionfish, we waited for them to go lifeless before carefully removing them from our hooks.
"Nothing about the fish is scary when dead," said Erik Walker, culinary director for the Chiles Group. "The only time they can really sting is while in or right out of the water. When you catch lionfish and cool it on ice, the cool temperature mitigates the toxin."
My curiosity was built and I wanted to see how delicious it was for myself. So I put on my food critic hat and ventured out to see Walker at The Beach House Restaurant to try it firsthand.
I started off with a few samples of new items, and fell in love with the hog-thais. While I could have easily filled up on them waiting for the lionfish to be prepared, I'm glad I didn't. The lionfish arrived after being fried whole and served in Thai green curry. It was a fantastic-looking presentation.
While I may have been a little timid to dig in, by the end I was wishing there was more. Sparing the delicious details, it is easily one of the best-tasting fish I've eaten. I told Walker I'd describe the meat as the texture of a snapper with the taste of a flounder.
"I haven't had anyone say anything negative about the fish," Walker said. "The presentation and look are so unique and it tastes great. There was once a little kid who saw it ordered and said, 'Isn't that poisonous?' followed with 'cool!', since he saw just how amazing it looked on a plate."
Before you go rushing to The Beach House to order it, know there are a few complications that arise from the sale of lionfish and lack of consistent supply.
"The ones we get are from the east coast of Florida," Chiles explained. "If someone really wants to try it they can call ahead and make sure we have it. We cannot serve it if we don't have it.
"Hopefully a commercial market develops. It is hard to acquire at the moment. We're paying around $18 a pound fileted at the moment and need to get it down to around $12 a pound to make it served in regular rotation."
If the lionfish isn't available, Chiles encourages people to try mullet, a popular seasonal fish that he has also been receiving rave reviews about.
"We served a ton of mullet while they were in season," he said. "We've been educating people that it's an awesome fish and some days we're selling as much mullet as grouper."