June 9 2010 12:00 AM

According to City Fish owner, honesty is the freshest policy


Fishmongering isn’t the easiest profession 100 miles in from a suitably stocked body of water, but Steve Joseph, owner of City Fish, is determined to make a living of it.

City Fish has been operating in the Lansing City Market since February.

Yes, Joseph is surrounded by the Great Lakes, although that didn’t help a number of Scalawags restaurants Joseph, 56, operated in the area. He opened three of them in the past five years, and the last remaining Scalawags (in south Lansing) closed just a couple months ago.

But the sputtering economy doesn’t bother Lake Michigan fish one bit. Joseph says it’s important to keep it local.

“We like to support local, and the City Market is all about Michigan,” he said. “People coming to the market are looking for that.”

Beyond the local, some patrons of City Fish are conscious about the wider impacts of their purchasing decisions. Some eschew Atlantic cod due to problems with sustainability. Farm-raised fish are another bone of contention with many of Joseph’s customers. He says television programs detailing the dirtiness of some farm-raised fish, notably tilapia, which are bottom-feeders that may live off the excrement of other fish.

“People like wild-caught fish,” Joseph said. “We try not to carry farm-raised fish.”

City Fish has over a half-dozen options in the cooler on the east side of the City Market. A hunk of sushi-grade tuna ($13.99 lb.) — thick, meaty and red — stands out from the crowd. Ocean perch ($5.49) is more of a bargain, but you won’t be eating it raw. Joseph likes to sear his tuna briefly, just browning the outside, before he digs in. He says the secret to cooking fish in general is to keep it simple.

“Salmon is our biggest seller, and people love to grill it. All you really need is salt and pepper, and maybe a little dill, and don’t overcook it,” he said.

But to cook a great meal, one must begin with fresh fish. Joseph says he’s confident anything a customer buys from his shop will be good for at least three days in the fridge, as long as it’s wrapped in plastic.

It’s best to keep fish on ice at all times as well. A savvy fish buyer will bring a cooler of ice to the market to keep it cold on the trip home. Keeping fish on ice in the fridge will help, too.

When purchasing fish, a few signs can help you determine its freshness. If it’s a whole fish, check the eyes first. They should be shiny and black, and the more they bug out, the better; the less fresh fish will have flatter eyes.

Like the eyes, fresh fish skin will be glossy and tight. This goes for fillets and cuts of fish as well; the longer a fish has been sitting, the duller and drier it will get. And if you get a strong fishy odor, you’ll probably want to pass.

Walleye ($13.99 lb.) is a popular Great Lakes catch, Mahi-mahi ($10.99 lb.) a bit more tropical, and jumbo shrimp ($13.99 lb.) and sea scallops ($13.99 lb.) are also regularly available from City Fish.

Joseph also takes special orders and can get all sorts of seafood. Chilean sea bass and halibut are requested.

Joseph likes calamari and oysters himself, and he’ll order conch meat sometimes, too, and fry it up like a hushpuppy.

City Fish has also been approved for a liquor license, and Joseph hopes to be stocked with beer and wine in the next couple of months, as soon as he can secure necessary equipment. He hopes to add some specialty meats and sausages soon as well.

To be a successful fishmonger, selection is important, but Joseph says the golden rule of his profession is to tell the truth.

“You have to work hard and enjoy what you’re doing, but you have to be honest with your customers,” Joseph says. “It’s just very important for fishmongers to be honest.”

City Fish

Inside the Lansing City Market 325 City Market Drive 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday- Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Saturday (517) 484-1557