"This time of the year, 90 percent of what we buy is either locally grown or sustainably raised or caught product," says Demetrios Atheneos, chef and owner of the Oak Barrel Brasserie and Taphouse in Valley View. That includes produce, obviously, but also meat, dairy and seafood.
But while seafood doesn't often make it to the top of the favorite local foods list — especially during summer when heirloom tomatoes and berries are around to steal the spotlight — springs and lakes have seasons too. And a not-so-fresh fish is a lot easier to sniff out than an aging watermelon.
Atheneos knows the importance of a fresh catch. "Our menu-item fish is either sustainably caught or locally raised," he says. The closer to home the fish starts off, the sooner he can get it to plate. So all the walleye at the Oak Barrel is Lake Erie walleye from Canada (apparently it's illegal to fish commercially for walleye in Ohio).
In addition to showing up on nightly specials such as fried fish tacos, local walleye is the star of the Oak Barrel's fish and chips, which is fried in Kentucky Bourbon Ale beer batter, and a walleye po' boy with a vinegar-and-local honey slaw and a house-made pickle.
"We've been lucky this summer, and we actually haven't had a down week yet," he says, "which is great for Ohio, [because] our seafood options are kind of limited."
At one time, Atheneos might have thought he was stuck with the few Lake Erie fish he could get. This year, however, the chef discovered Homestead Springs, an aquaculture operation in Fredericktown (about two-thirds of the way from Cleveland to Columbus) that not only is raising rainbow trout, but doing so cleanly and responsibly.
Responding to whether he has noticed a difference in taste between wild and farmed trout, Atheneos says, "Most of what you see in the marketplace today is all farm-raised, as far as the wholesale market. But these are actually out of fresh water springs out of Ohio."
They're still farmed, true, but Homestead Springs' 200-acre trout farm uses sustainable filtering processes, pumping 1,000 gallons of fresh water from the underground aquifer each minute, and no antibiotics. Because the operation isn't overly large and its clients are nearly all in Ohio, the fish don't have to be shipped cross-country, frozen en masse.
Atheneos prefers to give these delicate white fillets a light crust of pistachio, which he says pairs well with the taste of trout, then pan-sear them and serve the fish over a seasonal side dish: orzo pilaf with a pea tendril salad from Chef's Garden in Huron, for example.
"In the winter it's a little harder for us to get some of the ingredients," Atheneos says. "We'll change the preparation on it as we change our menu every season."
Specifically, look for different sides such as whipped potatoes or risotto, "something a bit more hearty," he says. And observe how even an ingredient that can be found locally year-round can reflect the flavors and textures of the season as much as a basket of farmers market produce.