Inspiration can strike at any time and in any place. For Lower East Side fishmonger Steven Wong it was the sight of giant langoustines whilst on a trip to Scotland that set his thoughts in motion. These beasts of the ocean were unlike anything that he was used to seeing back home, so he took some photos on the spot and sent them to Bun Cheam, the chef at the helm of Wong’s new restaurant venture.
There question he asked was whether his right hand man could find a new angle on serving seafood, especially using such impressive creatures as the ones he found on the other side of the Atlantic? Cheam’s answer was a resounding yes, and with that confidence to back up his initial ideas Wong air-shipped five pounds of the crustaceans back to his US kitchen and the pair set to work.
The result was the “tide to table” seafood market and eatery, Essex Pearl, which has just opened on the Lower East Side. Here you will find unusual seafood and crustaceans, sourced directly from fishermen all over the world which customers can either purchase raw to take home and prepare themselves or have cooked on site as part of Bun Cheam’s globally inspired dishes.
Essex Pearl is a logical move for Steven Wong, whose family, immigrants from Hong Kong, set up the New York based seafood distribution company, Aqua Best, 35 years ago. “My mother and father started bringing in items that were not popular back then, like geoduck and sea cucumbers, over the years they became very popular and we’ve grown to bring in all kinds of different exotic items,” he explains.
Wong took over the family business around fifteen years ago and began supplying his products to many American restaurants, including the likes of Per Se, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park. Essex Pearl is all about cutting out the middle man and to that end he now travels all over the world researching and exploring the supply chain and showing customers what great seafood is all about via his own outlet.
But it isn’t just a revelation for Steven Wong, Bun Cheam also remains very excited about the new venture. “From a chef’s perspective, having someone so knowledgeable like Steven, who knows all these fishermen intimately, source my seafood is a dream come true. I get to work with the freshest ingredients, most interesting things, and I have someone out there just looking out for me. That’s the most exciting part of our project.”
And it is an exciting place to be for anyone. Essex Pearl is a fish market where crab, lobsters and other marine mini-beasts scurry around in aquariums, where fresh fish and seafood are revered and where the open kitchen allows customers to watch their food being prepared for their plate. It is also boasts a 48 seat, full service restaurant and a raw bar.
Cheam, a Cambodian immigrant, has travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and draws his inspirations from the bustling fish markets there and across the world. “At these markets, there’s fruit everywhere, there’s hanging meat and there are fish in tanks,” he said. “You can get a fish and ask them to cook it for you. You can just sit there and eat. I want to bring that experience to this space.”
And Essex Pearl is more than just another place to shop and eat, it is a venue with a message. The menus include information about the origin of the seafood items in an attempt to educate people about the origins of their food and connect diners with what is being served up for them. And more importantly there is a poignant environmental issue in the mix.
“If it keeps going the way it’s going, farmed fish is going to become the most sustainable meat out there,” Cheam said. “I think it’s going to tip the balances to seafood being really popular soon. We’re seeing really good seafood restaurants opening up in New York City right now. I think it’s going to start happening all around the country.”