City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP

Letter from an Atlanta chef

Nick Oltarsh

Nick Oltarsh

Yesterday I published my open letter to Atlanta chefs, asking them to up their game. While there are some amazing chefs here making memorable food, I wrote this letter because I feel that the overall standards in the city have slipped in recent years. I love dining in this town, and I want it to be as good as I know it can.

Now a chef has written back with a letter to Atlanta diners. Nick Oltarsh oversees the kitchens at two restaurants — Lobby Bar and Bistro and Room at Twelve.

By the way, I’m thrilled to see he mentioned the spinalis steak he serves at Room. It’s one of my favorite steaks in town.

Here’s what Oltarsh has to say:

Open letter to Atlanta diners

Mr. Kessler and all the Atlanta dining folks:

In response to your open letter to chefs, as a local Atlanta Chef the message has been heard and truth be told, I concur.  I think we chefs and restaurateurs have acquiesced to the challenges of the Atlanta dining scene and have done so without much fight.  We need to regroup and accept this open letter challenge.  But we need help from our partner, the diner, in two key areas.  One, we need your financial support.  Last year was tough.  Please dine out!  Two, the more adventurous our diners are, the more we can express our creativity. Here are my suggestions for how the Atlanta community can help us become a more dynamic restaurant town.

1) Take a chance on some new flavors or foods you have never tried before.  How about celery root puree instead of mashed potatoes?  Consider farro in lieu of rice.  Really, these items don’t taste weird; they are simply a little out of the ordinary.  In fact, I had chicken hearts for the first time recently and I could not believe how yummy they were.  I am happy to serve broiled ribeye and seared trout but I also take deep pleasure in exposing my guests to new tastes such as tuna belly and spinalis steak.  The list of wonderful ingredients is endless; let us chefs manipulate them to create new dishes.  Support our creative endeavors by choosing innovative menu items.

2) Calamari doesn’t have to be fried to be good.  You can’t imagine how delicious calamari tastes before flour and oil intervenes.  Squid can be roasted, braised and grilled as well as fried and honestly, the results are quite remarkable.  Trust me when I proclaim that one bite of steamed calamari fresh from the sea with ripe tomatoes and fruity olive oil will expel any future desire to order the fried version; you’ll marvel at what you have been missing.  Help break the cycle whereby we silly scared chefs feel obliged to serve the same boring dishes to our customers.  Take a chance and order the steamed cockles instead of the fried calamari or the grilled lamb sandwich rather than a grilled chicken breast sandwich.

3) Please don’t ask for or expect tomatoes on your sandwiches in January (i.e., don’t expect food out of season).  Out of season tomatoes are mealy, tasteless and bloody expensive as well!  And the same holds true for all out of season produce.  It is costly and doesn’t taste good.  As for tomatoes, be patient, wait until the summer and you won’t be disappointed: August thru September they are sweet & acidic, dripping with juice and bursting with flavor.

4) Sustainable fish varieties are delicious; give them a chance.  Don’t get me wrong, grouper and snapper are tremendous fish but so are mackerel, sardines and barramundi.  When well prepared, these mouth-watering species drive culinary variety and innovation and furthermore, their use is right by the environment.  I can’t sell sustainable fish if my clientele are not willing to at least have a go at them.  Moreover, I prefer to preserve our oceans and leave behind some fish for future generations

5) We restaurateurs need your fiscal support during the week.  Restaurants cannot survive on Friday and Saturday business alone.  We need patrons in seats Sunday thru Thursday.  If we promise to do out part — serve great food in a hospitable environment with friendly service — will you come join us?

6) Good product can be expensive.  I like to provide good value.  I do suspect, however, that what I consider good value is not what many customers consider good value.  I really want to do the right thing and serve local food, seasonal food and use animals that are treated humanely.  I want to provide my guests with ingredients that are special and delicious and varied.  This approach can be relatively expensive.  I promise most all of us are really not trying to gouge you.  The fact is restaurants are labors of love and our margins are extremely slim.

7) If the kitchen makes a mistake, please let us correct it.  Kitchens screw up.  We overcook meat; we over-salt food; we are slow.  We try to keep these issues to a minimum but alas we fail to do so occasionally.  Please, rather than writing a scathing blog about your experience two days later, give us a chance to fix the problem while you are still dining in the restaurant and let us earn your positive tweets.

8)  There is a world beyond burgers and french fries.  Don’t get me wrong.  I eat burgers and I love them and any chef who says otherwise is a big, fat liar and a Judas to the profession.  Yet, I also love exhilarating, innovative, tricky, witty and daring cuisine.  Yes, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but isn’t it fun as a diner to be part of the process?  So go to your favorite burger joint, where you could very well see me, but also support your local independent fine-dining restaurant.  Both of us deserve your business.

Bring it on 2011!  Who’s in?

140 comments Add your comment


January 18th, 2011
2:36 pm

Chef, thanks for the feedback, and I’m with you! Thanks for your hard work, and especially for trying to work with sustainable food. P.S. My husband and I are eating out tonight at a local restaurant.


January 18th, 2011
2:42 pm

Well said Nick. Well said. JK, thanks for posting that.


January 18th, 2011
2:48 pm

I worked for Nick many years ago as summer host at Murphy’s. He really is a local star. Thanks for the response Chef! I’m with you.


January 18th, 2011
2:49 pm

This is the type of response that a brilliant chef makes. Nick probably just booked his entire restaurant by getting this published. If my wife and I weren’t in somewhat dire straits financially, I’d be all over visiting his restaurant. Maybe for our anniversary or something, we’ll take a visit. Well-written, Nick. Spinalis steak sounds awesome.


January 18th, 2011
2:50 pm

Actually, I just googled spinalis steak… and I know exactly what this is. The cap of a ribeye. It’s my absolute favorite part of an entire cow. Anyone who knows steak would love this fatty, loosely-grained cut! The idea of a restaurant serving this makes my mouth water!


January 18th, 2011
2:55 pm

Yes, Yes, YES to the calamari line! Seriously, folks, it doesn’t have to be fried to taste amazing!


January 18th, 2011
2:55 pm

Well said. Its team effort, we are your cheerleaders and I look foward to experimenting. In fact, because you did respond.. I’ll be dining at one of your places this weekend. That steak does sound good. I agree with all that you said…

Thank you for taking the time.

Covers Dixie like the Dew

January 18th, 2011
2:56 pm

It’s a tough business.


January 18th, 2011
3:00 pm

Wow! I was all prepared to read a defensive comeback and instead was treated to an honest and inspiring response. I am particularly inspired to have more nice meals out during the week, to think of it as a mini vacation at a hundredth of the price….thank you gents-debate, discussion without knives drawn–congress, are you listening?

Doc Hollidawg

January 18th, 2011
3:02 pm

Well said Chef. Thank you and this diner will continue to do his part.

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January 18th, 2011
3:07 pm

Wow! Thanks to you Mr. Kessler, and to you Chef Oltarsh. I am now breathing a sigh of relief that there is a glimmer of hope in Atlanta dining! I love trying new things–hamachi is my new favorite (fish cheeks). I too agree about calamari. I recently had some grilled with a splash of lemon juice and olive oil and it was one of the best things I’ve tasted. I try to introduce my friends to new and exciting things, but they seem to stick with the same things that they can get at your local McDonalds. Needless to say, I will come to your restaurant and find new dining friends!


January 18th, 2011
3:08 pm

Thanks for taking the time to give us some insight into dining. One thing to consider on number seven is that there is a huge trust issue surrounding it. Almost anyone who has been around the food service industry has heard kitchen staff brag about getting revenge someone they perceived as finicky by spitting in the food, wiping it on the floor, digging it out of the trash, etc. Even if it is not the norm, the perception with the public is that if they complain, they’re going to end up with altered food. This belief is strong enough that it even appears in tv shows and movies. Throw in another belief that chefs are prima donnas who go nuts if anyone dare have any complaint, and you’ve got a setup to where it’s easier for the public to just share their negative experience with everyone else and simply not return to the restaurant.

It is sad that this is the case. As the chef points out, mistakes happen and most want to serve good food and provide an excellent experience for those who are dining out. But until the perception (and in some cases, reality) of making complaints, even legitimate ones, results in an even worst situation, people aren’t going to feel comfortable in making them.

[...] [Here is a response from chef Nick Oltarsh.] [...]

David Galloway

January 18th, 2011
3:20 pm

Now, if only we could get Congress to interact with such civility and reason. John’s challenge was pointed and respectful and Nick’s response was transparent and informative. I too have a renewed sense of hope for the Atlanta restaurant scene, which is, indeed, a partnership.
Thanks John and Nick!


January 18th, 2011
3:25 pm

Well said, Chef Nick. Cheers!

Ginger Strader

January 18th, 2011
3:31 pm

I totally agree. My husband is a Chef who just graduated from LeCordon Bleu Atlanta and I have tried many new foods that I would have turned my nose up to before he became a Chef and I have to say that I am now a total fan of Braised Ox Tails and Beef Shanks. He made a seafood stew the other day that had squid and octopus along with other types of seafood and it was awesome. Trying new foods can be fun and an adventure!


January 18th, 2011
3:32 pm

“Last year was tough, please dine out”…..

Um no. You think it was tough on YOU and your restaurant? Why do you think we aren’t eating at your super fancy restarant? WE CAN’T AFFORD $75 for a steak at your “posh” restaurant, when we can buy at Publix for $15, and cook it at home. My $15 steak on the grill is WAY better than your fancy smancy $75 steak, with A potato and 2 stalks of Asparagus. Talk about a rip-off… wonder it was a tough year……


January 18th, 2011
3:33 pm

Ok then, we’ll try the celery puree and the chicken hearts on the condition that we’re allowed to either have a small taste first or be allowed to send it back in exchange for something else at no charge. Diners are afraid to spend money on food if they aren’t sure they will like it, which means they end up paying for 2 plates – the one they couldn’t stand and the replacement meal. I’m all for trying new things but frankly, people want hassle-free dining.

Also, I think a big problem is that restaurants can over-complicate things. If people don’t know what “barramundi with takuchoy” is, they probably won’t order it. Make sure things are described in a very clear way and PLEASE make sure your wait staff is well versed on these dishes.

I J.K.’s letter yesterday was somewhat exaggerated. I know of plenty of a-list, worthy-of-NY-or-Paris-clientele-type restaurants in ATL that create excellent dishes and seem to have the right mix of quality, price and vibe. Divan, di Paolo, Au RendezVous (the latter, maybe not vibe as much as pleasant charm) … you get the idea. Most are under the radar of the AJC restaurant critics.


January 18th, 2011
3:43 pm

The Varsity.


January 18th, 2011
3:55 pm

We are in Nick. We too love the Spinalis steaks and will give you a chance to fix ‘em for us. We too know that the parking lot at Golden Corral is full every day, and that it is a challenge to both teach and serve while keeping the lights on in a good restaurant. I personally think the food scene has improved in Atlanta in the last 15 years, but I’m one of the folks that haunt our Korean and Buford Hiway ethnic spots for “something different”. Keep up the good work.



January 18th, 2011
3:57 pm

Go, Chef! Mary’s a prude. Apparently she didn’t look at your websites. Stick with the $1.00 menu at McDonald’s, Mary.


January 18th, 2011
3:58 pm

Bravo! Well said. However, this is a down economy where people can’t afford to eat out as they used to. Provide a tasting menue…something with value to help us out and we can continue to eat out! We tried to frequent our little local hole in the wall breakfast joint once per week even when we really couldn’t afford it..but hey, they were good, cheap, homey (”honey can I help you”) and LOTS of food And yes…grits with EVERYTHING…but heck I know how to say no. Bless their hearts they closed down anyway. I am truely sorry for ANYONE in the restaurant biz..from Waffle House up. When people have to cut their budget Dining out is one of the first extra’s to go. I mean, the one review was right, you can go to the store and buy 2 steaks for $15 and if really creative can feed two adults and two kids. And really, I LOVE a good steak out and no dishes and being served instead of SERVING… but those months when we have to decide if we pay car insurance or electric bill…it’s gotta be something really special to to make us give up our budget and go out for an expensive meal.


January 18th, 2011
4:05 pm

Well-thought out and well-written, Chef. I will be trying one of your restaurants for the first time this week. (Not weekend.)

proof is in the barramundi....

January 18th, 2011
4:06 pm

thanks for the letter from yesterday and the response today. way to get the juices flowing (or blood boiling for some).
i don’t live in atlanta but travel there specifically to eat. i have had the pleasure of working in two of the best restaurants in the southeast, one in birmingham and one in savannah. (both james beard nominees, one a food & wine top 25). when eating out i tend to notice things that maybe others do not, but i also give the benefit of the doubt probably more than i should. i agree with mr kessler in that we are hopefully reaching the tipping point of the decadent, porky, fatty craze. i love the stuff as much as anyone but as mrs. childs preached, everything in moderation.
never having worked in the atlanta market, it is not my place to make suggestions concerning menu choices or menu mix. i don’t know the market or clientele. however, as a customer when i am there, i would say the only beef i have with dining in atlanta is the service. maybe it is because in smaller markets you tend to have staff who stick around longer, or maybe it is because there is more of a small town feel and the staff knows many of the patrons. but as a whole i have frequently experienced harried, know it all, indifferent, and at times downright rude service in the big city.
if the chef is creating innovative dishes but the person serving leaves a bad taste in my mouth it doesn’t matter about the meal, no dish is good enough or cutting edge enough to endure bad service.
all the parts have to work together to create a great restaurant. been fun reading all the responses and comments. the proof will be in the pudding, or barramundi, moving forward.


January 18th, 2011
4:11 pm

Sorry, I’m long winded and southern and this is just kind of a thorn…(obsess much…oh yes, I do). You know what really makes me give up the money that I really shouldn’t spend. Service. If I feel special and well cared for and the server knowledgeable…and start to remember me after the 3 or 4 time in a month…Because really, after a week and a half of cooking every meal cause we are ALL stuck in the house..and cleaning up after EVERY meal…and snacks and hot chocolate…and changing clothes three times a day because we played in the snow and now we are all wet…I want to spend $50 to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE!!! But dang it, it’s been a hard week and I want someone to take care of me as well as I take care of everyone else. And this kind of service can be had if someone actually gives a care about what they do. New Orleans has professional waitstaff…that is all they do. Why can’t we train kids… the service industry?


January 18th, 2011
4:14 pm

Spoken like a true PROFFESSIONAL CHEF.


January 18th, 2011
4:15 pm

For Atlanta chefs in general, please give us a break on arugula. There’s barely a menu in town without it and has outstayed it’s welcome by about 10 years, in my opinion. My husband and I eat out about twice a week. We are trying to keep our favorites profitable!


January 18th, 2011
4:20 pm

“…August thru September they [tomatoes] are sweet & acidic, dripping with juice and bursting with flavor.”

Hmmm. I didn’t know that it is reasonable to expect tomatoes just two months out of the year.

Chef Joe-Parish

January 18th, 2011
4:21 pm

We’re in Nick!

Native Atlantan

January 18th, 2011
4:33 pm

you can expect tomatoes any time of year — just don’t expect good tomatoes…..


January 18th, 2011
4:33 pm

Well done Chef! I’m coming in to get one of those spinalis steaks!


January 18th, 2011
4:40 pm

What a great response. I thought Kessler went a little too far yesterday, and rather than being defensive, the chef took the responsibility that was owed and then implored us help him practice his art. I’m sold! I haven’t been to Room at Twelve in a year or so, and it’s now back on my radar.

I also second his recommendation for dining out during the week. Weekends are amateur hour, with people who don’t eat out often crowding into restaurants with which they’re unfamiliar and expecting a slightly fancier version of the Applebee’s menu in a fine dining establishment. During the week, you get so much more attention from the chef, servers, and bartenders, and often get to ask questions and try little bits of things you normally wouldn’t have experienced. Go to a restaurant when you can interact with the staff, and the experience is exponentially better.


January 18th, 2011
4:41 pm

Well said Chef! See you one weeknight soon.


January 18th, 2011
4:44 pm

Thank you for your comments. The economy was tough on us as well. I love creatively prepared food. One request that I have (and I don’t know how you can comply) is to somehow eliminate the 90 min-2 hour wait to get a table.

Atlanta food lover.

January 18th, 2011
4:53 pm

Atlanta Restaurant Diners are a fickle group to be sure. Thats why the Metro Atlanta scene will always be a dynamic entity. There are a few hundred good retaurants in the city that folks can visit that are in-expensive and provide a well trained wait staff. There are a few dozen restaurants in the city that are worth the prices and the wait times. These are the locations where the staff is exemplary and the food is locally sourced and crafted with talent and love. Yes, there are a few chefs that rant and rave when food comes back – but in 5 years on the floor in one of the best restaurants in the city – I came to realize it was more how the waitstaff hadled the problem versus the chef being arrogant. If you’re charged for a dish you didn’t like – may I reccommend never visiting that establishment again. I did not see any food abuse at the restaurant that I worked at and if there had been – that staff member would have been fired on the spot. Worried about how a dish would taste thats “different” – ask your server – they may have an opinion that you respect.
In this era of going green and sustainability, its not to much to expect chefs to cook with the ingrediants of the season – and yes – back in the day Tomatoes were only availabe a couple of months a year, now we pick them green in chile and chemically enhance them so they’re red when they hit the burgers.
There are so many ways to enjoy your local favorite, I wish I was still in Atlanta, amongst friends and family in the buisness that tempt my palate with pictures and descriptions of Local 3, Canoe, The room at 12, Murphy’s, Muss and Turners’ and the like. I can’t wait to return and visit old favorites, on the plate, in the bottle and around the table. Keep it coming, the challenges and the responses. See ya’ll soon.

Chef Nick-Murphys

January 18th, 2011
4:56 pm

Well versed Chef Nick, were in! We are constantly driven by our own creativities and ingredients as Chefs, but above all – the fuel of excitement that we get from our diners is what makes us soar. It’s a team effort, and were in the business to interact with our customers on a very intimate level… Come have fun with us!

Atlanta Native

January 18th, 2011
5:04 pm

@Mary – that’s why I do not order steak and a baked potato when I go out, try something else. You don’t pay to go the the theater to see a movie you already have on DVD at home do you? No, you go to see a new movie. Try to think of dining that way. When eating casual, go for the favorites. I don’t want to try something new at the Varsity or a wing place, but that’s not what is meant by dining here.
@Really? – never grown your own tomatoes have you?


January 18th, 2011
5:10 pm

And thank you for trying to use sustainable seafood choices.


January 18th, 2011
5:12 pm

I appreciate these letters. I do. I guess I must be a picky eater, but certainly there are fine dining establishments that serve what a lot of people consider “normal” food. No chicken hearts, tuna or pork belly but what about a new twist on chicken or normal parts of the fish? I like calimari, so that’s not what I would call fussy. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to eat out when I can afford it. Those of us who don’t have the means to pay $75 for dinner during the week or go out more than once every few months have to settle for what we can get. And that’s where this conflict starts/ends. Would I go out every night – sure I would. I just can’t. So please don’t blame me for not eating out.

big tweezie

January 18th, 2011
5:14 pm

you sure did hit the mark with that fried calamari comment! :-) give atlanta diners more time; they just started eating calamari en masse only a decade ago!


January 18th, 2011
5:23 pm

Every time I walk past Room at night it’s empty….


January 18th, 2011
5:32 pm

As a food lover, I used to dine out very much probably too much and just realized that cooking at home could save me at least 60% of the money spent.

However, I believe in you get what you pay for. I have absolutely no problem in paying for a delicious and gratifying meal. But in the recent years I felt so cheated that I decided that I can do it better.

Boutique restaurants in my opinion bank on the hype more so than the quality of the food. Yes, good quality can be expensive but there is a fine line to where profit margin or quality of food intersect. I just find it that majority of restaurants in Atlanta are about getting as much money out of the diner but not really live up to the standard.

I have gripes about this with many companies. Such as Nike and Comcast for example. They increase the price, but yet they are cutting cost by using inferior materials. So as a consumer I am looking at it from stand point – You as the company cut cost by buying cheaper materials but yet charge me the consumer more. So I am not getting a better product for more but an inferior product.

Going to Steakhouses, my recent experience has been that you very seldom get the steak temperature you request. Or you may get it this time but the next time you won’t. The restaurant experience always goes up and down with each visit.

Therefore I am now reluctant to pay more because I really don’t know if I get a better product, it is almost a gamble and if you are in the mood for food you don’t want to gamble you want to eat good food.

Transplanted foodie

January 18th, 2011
5:35 pm

While I have only lived in Atlanta for a few years, I think we are actually a pretty solid dining town. I do think, however, that by and large, we are also a pretty conservative dining town. I buy that chefs have to cook what sells in order to be successful, and that this may not be true to what they really want to serve.

As someone who eats out 4-5 times per month, I love to walk into a restaurant and tell the chef “Serve me what I should eat.” It can be incredibly exciting and rewarding to put yourself in the chef’s hands – you can try things you never would have thought of, and have a fantastic meal.

How about chefs going menu-free one night a week? You walk in, sit down, and eat what the chef prepares, no choices, no menu, just great food. There are clearly enough adventurous eaters in Atlanta to make this work, as evidenced by the incredible success of our “underground” dining clubs.

Bring it chefs, many of us are ready and eager!


January 18th, 2011
5:36 pm

How about this compromise: I will visit your restaurant (on weekdays!) if you will put as much energy and enthusiasm into a delectable vegetarian meal as you do for your meat and seafood dishes. I can only think of one fine dining restaurant in Atlanta that does this (Woodfire Grill). Everywhere else I am subjected to a collection of side dishes that belong to other well-thought out plates or even just a plate of vegetables sauteed in vegetable oil. It’s insulting and not worth the money.


January 18th, 2011
5:50 pm

Someone mentioned service. I have to agree on that. I’ve also grown tired of children not being able to sit in their seats and behave in nice (pricey) restaurants. Just last week one was climbing on top of a stair railing next to my seat. Am I in a nice restaurant or McDonald’s? Part of what you paying for is atmosphere.

As for food — now that I think about it, I don’t necessarily think that chefs need to start offering all sorts of new things on their menus (although I would be happy to not see another goat-cheese- something-or-other or Asian-fusion dish (my husband is Asian and is irked by this.) What really needs to happen is for chefs to start upping their game on the BASICS. LIke Kessler said, stop serving wilted greens. If you offer steak, pork loin, or even roasted chicken, cook it to perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had overcooked, dry meat, in all sorts of presentations and original creations. If you can’t do a simple steamed broccoli well, do you think you can pull off smoked Swiss chard?

And why all the snobbery from diners? If someone wants to eat a nice ribeye with a Cabernet, who cares? Restaurants are there to serve a multitude of needs. It’s not all about being adventurous, all the time. I’ve eaten bone marrow, fish cheeks and all sorts of things, and had a lot of fun, but my favorite meal is a skillfully cooked cheeseburger with blue cheese and bacon, spicy mustard, and a gin and tonic on the side. What’s wrong with that? Folks need to lighten up and just enjoy what they enjoy without feeling like everything has to pass some culinary test.


January 18th, 2011
6:59 pm

As someone who eats out for or five times a week, I’ll be thrilled if a restaurant will try the novel concept of serving fresh vegetables? Yes, tomatoes can go out of season, but the farmer’s market has fresh produce most of the year. Send a truck down there a few times a week and pick it up yourself instead of having a food distributor drop it off. If you cross that ‘barrier’ then I’ll worry about whether the tartare is to my liking.

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January 18th, 2011
7:33 pm


January 18th, 2011
8:23 pm

This is an intelligent response to John’s open letter….I agree with your ideas completely, chef.

But if patrons are to feel comfortable with new foods they need to be aware of them before they get to an expensive restaurant. Why not give samples of some things as a complimentary course to acquaint people with potentially new ingredients? I had my first pate as a complimentary offering with cocktails at the great LeRuth’s in New Orleans back in the 70’s. It’s now one of my favorites but I might have never tried it otherwise.

Most non-foodies have never had much experience with offal and for sure, many of these things are an acquired taste. Offering small tastes of things like this could test the waters of customer acceptance. If they won’t even taste it when it’s free, it’s probably not going to catch on. Alligator is a big seller at the New Orleans Jazz festival, along with crawfish, but I wonder how many people would take a free sample at a public offering here. That little marketing test would tell a lot about the future of sophisticated menus in this city.

I always assumed calamari was served as one of the few seafood offerings is because it’s cheap for the restaurant and when fried, pretty well devoid of flavor. But why are all the other fruits of the sea not even present? I realize sourcing quality seafood here is difficult due to the limited number of wholesalers.

Of course the market determines what we get, but increasing the number of educated consumers and diners is a worthwhile goal for any chef. Sharing the joy of food is a noble task and a winner for all.