I’ve known Chef Jim Guarino for a number of years now, and I consider his restaurant, Shango, to be one of the city’s best eateries. Consistent in both food quality and service, in just a few years Shango has developed a dedicated clientele, keeping this University Heights restaurant bustling.
Chef Guarino was an early adopter when it comes to the trend of buying local products. He was a supporter of other small local businesses before it was cool, offering Flying Bison Beer and Spar’s Sausage to his customers early on. Today that ethos has been adopted–in varying degrees–by restaurant owners all over the city. But Jim was one of the first.
He works with a number of local farmers, and has a close relationship with the food distributors he depends on for non-local items. “It’s as much about the relationship as it is about the product,” Jim tells me as we sit in the lounge area of the bistro. The restaurant staff is busy prepping for dinner, something Jim would be helping with if I wasn’t distracting him with my banter and endless questions. We’re talking about his friendship with Peter Longo, a longtime figure in Buffalo restaurant scene who is currently a salesman for Curtze, a food distribution company that supplies Shango with sustainable fish. “A couple of years ago…when we were really focusing on finding local, sustainable produce and meat products, I started to think more about the fish we were bringing into the restaurant. I had heard rumblings about how some fish was hurting the environment, but I hadn’t paid too much attention. Thinking about trying to do the right thing for our customers and the community, I started to do some research.” While tooling around the internet, Jim came across the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide to responsible fish purchasing. Further on, he discovered Clean Fish, a company whose line of fish are sustainably farmed or wild caught using sustainable methods, “…plus they are of fantastic quality,” Jim says. “We started out with the Laughing Bird shrimp, which is just so fresh and amazing–it’s practically red it’s so pure. And then the Loch Duart salmon, which is just really so good.” And he’s right, I’ve had both at Shango on multiple occasions and found them to be remarkable in both flavor and texture.
What many people don’t realize is that much of the fish that is served in restaurants today is not good. Not only does it not necessarily taste good (which is masked by deep frying or the application of heavy sauces), but it is also bad for the environment. This highly complex topic even leaves the experts confused, and many chefs feel that it is impossible to make a choice that is pleasing to the customer, good for the earth, and financially viable for their business.
In Buffalo particularly, people seem to mostly appreciate salmon, deep fried fish fillets, shrimp and the soon-to-be-extinct Patagonian Toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean Sea Bass. “It takes forty years for a Chilean Sea Bass to reach maturity,” Jim cautions. By all reports, generous estimates suggest that the Toothfish will be commercially extinct within three years. Additionally, large fish generally test with high levels of mercury in them, and then there’s all of the bycatch that is wasted. Even worse, irresponsible fish farms use overcrowding, antibiotics, hormone treatments and foods made from non-fishy things (like corn, wheat, etc.) in order to raise large fish in record amounts of time for as little money as possible. Many of these farms are also huge polluters.
So where is a consumer to turn, how does one navigate the ever-changing rules of the fish world? One of the easiest ways is to eat small fish, fish that aren’t predators. Staying away from farm-raised salmon is very important, unless the farm is given the thumbs up by Greenpeace, like the Loch Duart served at Shango. “We have to educate ourselves,” Jim tells me as he wraps up some of his newest offering for me, fresh fillets of Texas RedFish. “We do the best we can here, we use every opportunity to promote the farms we work with and the reasoning behind the products we serve. We want to offer our customers the best. Does it cost me a little more? Absolutely, but it’s worth it.”
Shango Bistro & Wine Bar
3260 Main Street
Buffalo, NY 14214-1353
Images Courtesy of Shango. Upper: Loch Duart Salmon Entree Inset: Laughing Bird Shrimp Cake