Dining Out 2 minutes 26 July 2019

Where to Find Unusual Seafood in Washington, D.C.

Here are some of the restaurants serving up sugar toads, gooseneck barnacles and firefly squid in the nation's capital.

There are plenty of fish in the sea, so why do we stick to a familiar few? Sit down at a sushi counter or a seafood restaurant and you'll likely see the same old salmon, sea bass or shrimp. But eating more unusual fish—like sugar toads or triggerfish—is not only a great way to add a little variety to your diet, but in some cases it's a more sustainable choice. If you want to cast a wider net, here are a few restaurants where you'll reel in quite the catch.

Ivy City Smokehouse

This smokehouse, market and tavern in Ivy City sources its seafood from ProFish, a sustainable distributor right across the street. They offer varying specials like triggerfish, sheepshead, blowfish, Ipswich clams and even invasive species such as snakehead. You can find these wild-caught, mid-Atlantic fish on regular weekly rotation when they're in season. Snakehead are most commonly available during the winter, and occasionally the summer. Don't let the name deter you from trying it—chef Ron Goodman describes it as a tender, white-fleshed fish with a mild and clean flavor, which lends itself to many different preparations.

Sushi Taro

D.C.'s only MICHELIN-starred sushi restaurant is a top destination for Japanese fugu and also offers a tasting menu dedicated to blowfish during the season (December to mid-March). In the summer months, you can expect to see rarities like small wild freshwater crabs, a sharp-toothed eel known as hamo, gooseneck barnacles and Japanese river trout. The eel is popular in Kyoto, but requires expert knife skills and a specific technique to remove the tiny bones in one stroke while leaving the skin intact. The gooseneck barnacle is considered a delicacy in Spain, Portugal and parts of Japan, and it is simply prepared by boiling it in saltwater and peeling the skin off to enjoy the meat.

The Dabney

Amidst the mid-Atlantic fare in this hearth-centric kitchen, sugar toads are a standout that have been on the menu since the beginning. These small pufferfish are dubbed sugar toads because fishermen would say they were sweet as sugar and ugly as a toad. Unlike Japanese blowfish, Chesapeake pufferfish are not poisonous because they eat a different diet than their Pacific counterparts. Chef Jeremiah Langhorne chose to feature the humble sugar toad because it's a delicious regional product that is underutilized. It's also considered bycatch, so cooking it is a sustainable choice that supports fishermen and prevents waste. He serves them like fried chicken—dredged in buttermilk and flour, fried and coated in hot sauce and honey.

The red cornetfish. (Photo courtesy of Sushi Nakazawa.)
The red cornetfish. (Photo courtesy of Sushi Nakazawa.)


The Anacostia River is the backdrop for a sea of seasonal, sustainable seafood at Whaley's. While the kitchen typically sticks to more traditional species, the restaurant does serve often neglected cuts, like heads and collars. Chef Dan Perron says these are the best parts of the fish, but many restaurants in the U.S. discard them or relegate them to stock. Only recently have heads and collars become popular in American cuisine. These cuts are high in collagen, making them supremely juicy and tender. Whenever Perron has a large enough fish, he'll offer the head and collar as a special on the weekends. He also occasionally sources live geoduck and razor clams, which are served raw to allow guests to savor the delicate briny flavor.

Nama Sushi Bar

Restaurateur Michael Schlow's new sushi bar offers an extravagant omakase menu (reservations required) that highlights the freshest, most interesting ingredients chef Young Oh can import. A few recent examples include bioluminescent firefly squid (picture at the top of the article), geoduck and hirame (Japanese flounder) fin. The firefly squid lives deep in the ocean, but periodically ends up near the surface where it is caught. It gets its name from photophores found all over its tiny body that make it glow bright blue. Chef Oh prepares the squid by marinating it in sesame oil and sea salt and then serving it with finely sliced scallions.

Sushi Nakazawa

This somewhat recent New York import has a reputation for luxury—and a little controversy—but with a parade of 20 pieces of high-end nigiri for $120 in the dining room (it's $150 if you want to sit at the sushi bar to watch the chefs in action), the price is actually quite reasonable. Your meal includes rare finds like triggerfish, firefly squid, kohada and red cornetfish alongside the expected top-of-the-line tuna, uni, caviar and even wagyu beef. Kohada is one of the most traditional pieces of edomae-style sushi, but is something many sushi fans aren't familiar with. It is known for its meaty taste and typically comes cured. Still not sure what you're ordering? Don't worry, the restaurant provides interactive service to educate diners about any fish they may not have seen before.

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