Story of a Dish: Lobster and Crab Stuffed Mahi-Mahi
CHEF: James Costello
RESTAURANT: Ohana Grill
It may seem surprising that, for two years running, a New Jersey chef who designs fish dishes around culinary trends happening 5,000 miles away has been honored by the NJ Department of Agriculture as one of the state’s top seafood chefs. In fact, chef James Costello, owner of Ohana Grill in Lavallette, sees the Jersey shore and the island of Maui as much more closely linked than that mileage suggests. What’s more, he sees his restaurant as a place where he can showcase both his Jersey Shore pride and his love of Hawaii and its cuisine.
“If I was in Kaanapali, walking my dog down the beach, it would be a much different feeling, but it’s that same love of the beach,” Costello says. “That was part of the reason we got into Ohana. I wanted to wear shorts and flip-flops every day—just to have that lifestyle.”
Costello has a standing order with Pisces Seafood, his seafood purveyor in Toms River, to purchase Hawaiian fish such as opah (moonfish) and opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper), whenever it is available wholesale in the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point. Mahi-mahi, which is fished throughout the world, including along the east coast of the United States, is also a regular item on Ohana’s menu. Costello says the texture of mahi-mahi makes it perfect for stuffing, especially when the fillets are thick enough to allow a pocket to be cut. His preparation is inspired by stuffed fish dishes he has eaten on family trips to Maui. “This dish evolved from our trips to Hawaii, and then we sort of tweaked it into our own with adding some Jersey Shore gumption to it,” Costello says.
His original idea of stuffing mahi-mahi with crabmeat quickly evolved to include lobster tail meat— adding a richness that Costello says “really puts the dish over the top.” The salsa he devised to accompany the dish is based on the restaurant’s mango salsa, which he made more tropical by adding papaya and pineapple. (In the original version of this salsa, which is served with a wasabi calamari appetizer, the pineapple is grilled.) Finally, a topping of macadamia nuts—a classic (but not native) Hawaiian ingredient—adds texture and another layer of flavor.
“We just kept adding different things to it until we came to the final dish,” Costello says. “We cooked it, loved it and it became a menu item.”
Ohana means “family” in Hawaiian —an apt choice for the name of Costello’s restaurant, both because family members pitched in to get the restaurant up and running and because Costello’s two trips to Hawaii have revolved around family. The first was his honeymoon, which ended in a tearful airport plea from his new wife that they find jobs and stay in Hawaii. The second trip included nine family members.
As the head chef of a restaurant that serves dinner seven nights a week, however, time with his family is a rare luxury during the height of the season. On the up side, though, that schedule— along with his use of nightly specials—gives him ample opportunity to experiment with new culinary techniques and exotic ingredients, such as dragon fruit and jackfruit. “Every week that goes by with food, you learn something,” Costello says. “That’s the nice part about our restaurant being open seven days and constantly doing specials. We constantly cycle new ingredients. We don’t just do the same menu every day.”
65 Grand Central Ave., Lavallette