Rare fish: Chef David Graham is one of just a half dozen
or so sustainable sushi chefs in the nation. Photo by Ted Holladay.
As sun streams in the huge arched windows of Geisha Sushi, Chef David Graham beams.
“Just look at how beautiful this Arctic char is,” says Graham, showing off the plump, silky, 14-inch cuts.
“It’s sustainably farm raised in ideal conditions—no pollutants— and every bit as delicious as its cousin, the salmon.”
Moving down the row of fresh-as-can-be seafood, he holds up a slab of Tombo Ahi, a species of Pacific Albacore that isn’t suffering the same fate as its overly fished and endangered relative, the bluefin tuna. “It has a buttery taste, very mild and tender,” Graham says. As delighted as Graham is to display the daily offerings at his Capitola restaurant, he’s even more proud of its mission: to serve only healthy, sustainable, eco-conscious fish.
Gone are the farm-raised freshwater eels for unagi. Instead, he serves up o-nagi, which is catfish prepared in the same sweet, marinated barbecue style. Also absent is all manner of farmed salmon, imported shrimp, octopus and sea urchin.
Opened last summer, Geisha Sushi is one of only a half-dozen or so sushi bars in the country that eschews any seafood not earth-friendly, and it is the first in the area.
“At first, we were nervous about bucking the status quo,” says Graham, who opened Geisha with owners Annop Hongwathanachai and Anchalee Thanachai. “It was a scary proposition.”
But as cutting-edge as Geisha’s operating premise is, it’s been met not with wariness but with overwhelming success.
“Given a choice, people more often than not do the right thing,” says the philosophical Graham. “Our customers have shown their willingness to experiment, to step out of their comfort zone and try new things, and that’s been a key to building our reputation.”
While a very small number of people have walked out of the restaurant upon discovering that their favorites aren’t on the menu, the vast majority, Graham says, have embraced the restaurant’s approach and allowed him to guide them to new and interesting choices.
Graham takes his cues from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the ultimate resource for enjoying the gifts of the sea responsibly. “There are so many factors to consider when choosing seafood, and the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch boils it down so nicely.”
Among the questions the Aquarium asks before giving its seal of sustainability are: Is the bycatch reeled in during fishing hurting the ecosystem? Are farmed fish being raised in terrible conditions, in overcrowded pens with a diet of high-protein food? Is the water on these farms being pumped full of antibiotics? Are pollutants being allowed to enter open waters? The list goes on and on.
But Graham isn’t catering to the fish alone.
“When you buy and prepare sustainable seafood, you’re not only helping struggling fish populations and the ocean, you’re also getting a superior product—fresher, healthier and just plain better.” And when a certain roll or recipe calls for produce, customers can also be assured of first-rate quality: organic fruits and veggies culled from local markets and farms. Geisha’s menu in fact has an extensive list of vegetarian entries, and most of those dishes are vegan.
Should you make a foray to Geisha, be sure and try the lean walu (also known as butterfish, an apt moniker for its utterly delicious taste); the suzuki, a nice, mild species of Japanese sea bass; and the Thailander roll, a delectable combination of o-nagi, prawn tempura, peanut butter and a hint of spice. Then finish off your feast with a bowl of coconut ice cream crafted with a recipe that’s been passed down through three generations of one of the owners’ families.
If you love what you order, you’ll make Graham a contented man. “There’s a whole universe of choices in sushi using sustainable, ecologically sound seafood,” says Graham. “And when a customer at the restaurant exclaims ‘that’s sushi and it’s sustainable?’ we smile because we made someone happy and did a little more to help the environment.
And that’s pretty exciting and very gratifying.”
200 Monterey Ave., Capitola
Seafood Watch: montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx