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Denver-area restaurateurs fight skepticism about flown-in fish

From Denver Business Journal

When Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch open seafood restaurant Stoic & Genuine at Denver Union Station on July 8, they will battle for business against other area eateries, and also face a phenomenon some in their industry call “the myth of coastal superiority.”

Online reviews of Colorado seafood venues often feature comments asking why someone would eat seafood when the Rocky Mountains are so far from the source of that menu supply. Restaurateurs also hear people talk about how fish can’t be fresh in a landlocked state.

Derek Figueroa, chief operating officer of Denver-based seafood importer Seattle Fish Co., acknowledged it takes a few more hours to fly fish from California to the Mile High City than to a coastal city. But he also noted many California or Florida restaurants bring some of their offerings in from the opposite coasts.

“Depending on which coast it’s from, we might make up that half a day on them if the fish has to fly over us,” Figueroa said.

Jasinski and Gruitch — who also own high-profile Denver restaurants Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall — wanted to launch a Mexican eatery for their fourth venture but concluded that the downtown area was too saturated with them.

After realizing that they enjoyed eating seafood and that there were fewer competitors in that category, they decided to go forward with a venue that will focus on serving fresh oysters. They’ve arranged with New York and Washington state fishermen to ship them about 1,000 pounds a day branded as Stoic oysters and Genuine oysters, Jasinski said.

Despite Denver diners’ freshness questions, Gruitch said she believes the market “is begging for more seafood restaurants.” And she said that bringing in oysters caught specifically for the restaurant — a project undertaken by chef de cuisine Jorel Pierce — will be a plus.

“I think the Denver diner has become much more sophisticated and much more knowledgeable,” Gruitch said as construction crews worked on the restaurant that will seat 62 people inside and 40 on its patio. “You can thank the Food Channel and all for that.”

Figueroa noted that some Denver restaurants have tried to raise the visibility of their seafood freshness by listing on their menus the specific names of the vessels catching the dishes.

Sheila Lucero, executive chef for Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, said her four Front Range restaurants have earned customers’ trust by building reputations over 20 years. But she also believes that new seafood venues have the opportunity to explain their sourcing and their direct shipments from the coasts into Denver and win consumer confidence fairly quickly.

“There’s a lot of people that say: ‘Seafood in Colorado? That’s crazy,’” Lucero said. “I do get a little defensive and want to say to people: ‘You’ve flown on a plane; you know how it works.’”