Dry-aged fish started popping up across menus at Los Angeles restaurants seemingly overnight. Anajak Thai chef-owner Justin Pichetrungsi began offering dry-aged fish tacos in the alleyway of his Sherman Oaks restaurant in 2020 as part of a weekly Tuesday pop-up. Upscale Mexican restaurant Damian in Downtown’s Arts District boasted a grilled dry-aged branzino with chayote, and, more recently, Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra debuted a play on Hainan chicken rice with dry-aged barramundi.
Adding “dry-aged fish” to a menu is becoming as eye-catching as saying a dish is made with Mary’s chicken or wagyu. It raises the question: How did this preparation become so popular on LA menus and is it really worth all the hype?
“People misunderstand it because we use the word ‘dry,’” says Liwei Liao, the owner of Sherman Oaks fish market the Joint. “We’re not really drying it. We’re just keeping it in a dry environment over time. The majority of our fish is really just being conditioned so that it’s cleaner and purged of a lot of its impurities, basically anything that makes it taste fishy. The protein is essentially the same. It’s just conditioned to be better than it was fresh.”
The basics of dry-aging involve meticulous cleaning, gutting, and scaling of pristine-quality fish. If the seafood isn’t handled properly from the start, then it’s not a good candidate for dry-aging because it will end up tasting fishy, something that usually occurs as a result of the trimethylamine N-oxide chemical in fish that breaks down into ammonia and compounds when washed off with tap water. “If the fish is wild, we need to make sure that it wasn’t under too much stress before it came to us,” says Colin Whitbread, chef and co-founder of the exclusively dry-aged fish sushi restaurant Fiish in Culver City. “Hopefully it was [killed through the Japanese technique] ikejime, sustainably caught, ethically sourced, and there’s no adrenaline left in its body. Then it’s going to taste better.”
The fish are then hung from hooks in a moisture- and temperature-controlled refrigeration system for days, even weeks, depending on the type and size, and are spaced apart so they don’t touch one another. Dry-aged beef is processed in a similar manner, and when the meat is exposed to air over time, moisture is drawn out, the muscles break down, and the fat becomes more pronounced, resulting in a more tender, flavorful, and rich product.
Chefs and fishermen wax poetic about the results of dry-aging fish, saying there’s more umami, tenderness, and fattiness to the seafood. There’s less fishiness to the taste as well. “It has more of a melt-in-your-mouth texture,” says Cody Requejo, the executive chef at Fiish. Whitbread notes that when they add their house-made vinegar to the fish, the meat soaks up more of the sauce due to its dehydrated nature and becomes something more uniquely flavorful than if they had just used fresh fish.
It took some time for Michael Cimarusti of two-Michelin-starred Hollywood restaurant Providence to get on board with dry-aging fish. “In the old days, the idea was to buy the freshest fish you can and serve it as quickly as you can,” says Cimarusti. “Now, with the trend of dry-aging fish, obviously, that’s all changing. I would definitely say that I’m a convert now.”
Providence now has three commercial dry-aging refrigerators, two of which are used for fish and one for meat. At his restaurant, Cimarusti serves a tartare with dry-aged tai snapper and Korean pear, and a sashimi course with dry-aged Japanese hiramasa.
While the folks running restaurants like Providence, Fiish, and Crudo e Nudo are all dry-aging in-house — each processing and utilizing the product in different ways and for myriad reasons — they all pay respect to the Joint’s Liao for propelling the popularity of the practice forward in LA. (In Australia, chef-owner Josh Niland of Saint Peter restaurant is also famous for dry-aging fish and publishing The Whole Fish Cookbook, which also covers the topic.) Liao has been selling dry-aged fish at his market since shortly after he opened in 2018, and his operation has grown so much in the wholesale department that he’s now supplying about 50 accounts throughout the United States. He has 32 doors full of hanging fish at his outpost, holding everything from Ora King salmon to bluefin tuna and branzino. Fish might hang in his refrigeration systems that are cooled to about 0.8 degrees Celsius for anywhere from four to 24 days and more.
A lifelong fisherman, Liao had experimented with dry-aging fish as early as 20 years ago and has perfected his techniques through trial and error. Requejo and Cimarusti have often asked Liao for tips on dry-aging since he has a wealth of knowledge that he’s open to sharing. Even before Requejo became the executive chef at Fiish last August, he had already been dry-aging seafood since 2016; he began tinkering with a refrigerator at home to circulate air and temperature and used salt blocks to decrease the humidity. Brian Bornemann, the chef-owner of Santa Monica’s Crudo e Nudo, first started the practice in 2017 when he was the executive chef at the now-closed Viale Dei Romani in West Hollywood. He credits a Japanese sushi chef for piquing his interest in dry-aging; he learned how to scale a fish using the Japanese sukibiki method (a gentle and swift knife technique that scales fish without bruising the flesh) and hang fish vertically in a fridge.
The concept of aging fish is nothing new. Liao says chefs have long been known to break down the fish into smaller pieces and preserve it using salt or vinegar, a hot water bath, or smoking it. Japanese sushi chefs have marinated the fish and placed it between sheets of kombu for days for umami-laden results.
Daniel Son (chef-owner of Katsu Sando and previously Kura Fine Japanese Cuisine) says aging fish “as far as the understanding or education on a more general level, is still a niche kind of market” in LA. He notes that local sushi restaurants like Shunji Japanese Cuisine, Morihiro, and the Brothers Sushi practice classic Japanese aging traditions.
“There are so many different methods to aging fish, but we’re dry-aging fish in an environment where we don’t need to incorporate any kind of preservatives,” says Liao.
The Fiish folks started dry-aging out of necessity. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Whitbread says “the food system was upside-down” with Japanese ports closed, and it was difficult to reliably procure fish for their sushi restaurant. Dry-aging allowed them to keep their product longer with better-tasting results. They were able to buy larger quantities of seafood from local fishermen and preserve them, and they didn’t have to scramble to sell all their fish in an unpredictable market.
Crudo e Nudo opened in 2021 amid the pandemic as well. “In launching Crudo e Nudo we decided that this is the perfect time to forget the old-school restaurant game of just buying the best stuff in the whole wide world,” says Bornemann, who ages rockfish, striped bass, and kanpachi. (His crudo dishes use these dry-aged fish in a variety of ways, paired with ingredients like calamansi vinegar, bottarga, and smoked oil.) “With this giant carbon footprint of shipping, this is our time to really focus on local and what we have around us.”
The Fiish owners say they’re sticking to dry-aging fish going forward since it’s been such a game-changer. “When everything wasn’t available like it was on a daily basis, people had to start being able to preserve what they had,” says Whitbread. “That was the stone that dropped into the pond and now those ripple effects have led to what’s happening now. And next year, it’s going to be even more popular, and five years from now, it’s going to be so normal and commonplace that people aren’t going to bat an eye about it.”