The wind shifts direction under the hot sun of this summery Sunday afternoon, and all at once I’m surrounded by the smells and sounds of sizzling batter. On either side of me on this flex-patio are tables filled with people who have come to James Bay for one of the best fish-and-chips experiences in Victoria, and I cannot wait until my own plate arrives.
Operating out of an early-20th-century style house on Erie Street, just around the corner from one end of Dallas Road, Finest At Sea runs a bustling fish-and-chips trade out of a food truck—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Follow the painted fish around to the back and there’s a deli and store selling everything from fillets to smoked fish, boil-in-a-bag shrimp risottos, salmon devilled eggs and so much more. All of it made from the highest quality seafood.
“We never lose sight of our fish,” says Jennifer Gidora, operations manager for both the Victoria and Vancouver locations.
“The boats come in, the fish is processed on site here,” she explains, emphasizing that all their products have 100 per cent traceability. “We know what vessel it came from, who the captain was, the area it was caught, everything.”
She’s brought me an apricot sparkling water and an artfully laid small platter of smoked fish and spiced olives as she sits down to chat, and the light, semi-sweet bubbly is the perfect accompaniment to the array of appetizers.
Finest At Sea does about 16 different smoked fish offerings, says Jennifer, and in front of me now are four: alderwood cold-smoked tuna, smoked sockeye, candied spring salmon and candied sablefish.
I spear a piece of the tuna first, and it’s light and a little chewy, with a fresh flavour that pairs nicely with a bite of one of the olives. The smoked sockeye is next, brilliant orange and firm-textured. There is definitely no mush on these smoked fishes. The candied spring salmon is sweet and chewy, leaving sticky smears on my fingertips. And then there’s the sablefish.
Oh, the sablefish.
Buttery is the only word that comes close to describing the melt-on-the-tongue texture as I fork my first mouthful. It’s rich and soft, and intensely flavourful in a seemingly contradictory subtle way, and I can’t seem to stop eating it. And then all that’s left is a light smear on the platter and a lingering heat on the back of my tongue.
I glance up with eyes wide in flavour heaven and Jennifer laughs when I tell her it’s the single best piece of fish I’ve ever put in my mouth.
“It’s crazy the extent we go to to catch these fish,” she tells me. They’re found far, far north, essentially on the border with Alaska, in the “deepest, darkest, coldest parts of the ocean,” as far down as 3,000 feet, and so are incredibly fatty.
And it doesn’t have to be smoked to be delicious. For anyone who’s perhaps been hesitant to bring home a piece of this premium fish and try their own hand at cooking it, Jennifer has nothing but encouragement.
“You cannot overcook sablefish,” she says firmly. “You could put it in the oven and come back three hours later, and it will still be the best fish you’ve ever eaten.”
Chef Anna Hunt brings out my next tasting course: a cold-smoked tuna taco and a fresh-from-the-fryer piece of battered lingcod. I give the lingcod a minute to cool and take on the taco first. Here, the tuna is seared quickly on both sides, then layered under chipotle mayo, house-made salsa and slaw, and it offers a tasty mix of chewy and crunchy textures, with a good amount of smoky spice.
But as good as the taco is, my heart forever lies with all things battered and deep fried, and this is easily one of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.
While Finest At Sea offers halibut, salmon and lingcod in their deep-fried selections, Anna’s partial to the lingcod. While halibut is popular, it also has a more delicate flavour and texture.
“With lingcod, it has a stronger flavour to it, and I find that richer flavour stands up to the batter and frying,” she says. And with her 20-plus years of experience working in fine dining and catering, I’m quite happy to take her word for it.
I take my first bite bare of any tartar sauce, and as I crunch through the outer layer, the sound of the crisped batter breaking apart is as satisfying as the rich flavour. And then for the rest of it, I sort of forget I’m supposed to be savouring this experience to write about it, and the lingcod (and three-quarters of the perfectly salted hand-cut Kennebec fries beneath) disappear, until all that’s left are my lightly oiled fingers and a few stray crumbles of fish batter.
Anna’s settled in as I finish, chatting about the history of the business and their intrepid employer, Bob Fraumeni, who took a childhood obsession with the sea and turned it into a nearly 50-year-old business that’s grown and adapted over the years. Anna, who has memories of buying fish from the store around back when she was a kid with her parents, closed down her catering company during the COVID-19 pandemic and signed on with Finest At Sea a little over a year ago.
“Never in a million years did I think I would get someone of Anna’s experience and capabilities,” says Jennifer. “She has been the key piece to us being what we are today.”
Looking around, heavy planters crowd the patio space, filling it with hydrangeas, blueberry bushes, broad-leafed shrubs and climbing sweet peas. Conversations bounce from one side of the patio to the other. The whole space feels a little wild, a little overflowing, a little loud and a lot friendly.
“That’s Bob,” laughs Anna. “He’s very passionate about this business and fish. He’s built this business off the one thing he loves most in the world.”
The Vancouver operation, settled in a brick-framed shop front in Kerrisdale, is a spacious market stuffed with an abundance of everything from fillets to smoked fish, risottos, chowders and so much more, and it also runs a bustling fish and chips trade.
You can check them out online at finestatsea.com.