This time of year, the welcoming rays of golden sunlight in the late afternoon is matched only by the primitive thrill of lighting up the grill.
When you're a seafood lover and a grilling aficionado, there's nothing more satisfying than putting together a spring clambake on a beach or in the back yard.
Sonoma County restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark found themselves grilling up a perfect storm this spring after they bought a new fire pit for their backyard Shangri-La. After a quick trip to the farmers' market, they simply threw a briny array of shellfish and mollusks on the grill, along with fresh bread and spring veggies like asparagus and artichokes.
"I marinated the seafood really simply, in a tangerine olive oil," Stark said. "We just threw them all on the grate, then served a big platter of seafood with grilled bread and vegetables."
Born and raised on the Eastern shore of Maryland, Stark has always had one hand in the water, fishing around for edible creatures from the waters just outside his front door.
"My neighbors were oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay," he recalled. "They would catch eel and ship it back to Japan. In the summer, we'd go out looking for soft-shell crab."
At Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg — the busiest of the couple's four restaurants in Sonoma County — Stark pays tribute to his East Coast roots while giving a nod to the high-flavor, fusion-style dishes of Latin America.
"Willi's Seafood is East Coast meets South America, and more specifically, Peru," Stark aid. "A lot of Japanese people migrated to Peru in the 1940s, so there's a big Asian influence."
Boasting a vibrant cocktail bar and a raw bar brimming with oysters and clams, Willi's Seafood features everything from New England-style seafood rolls and fried clams to Latin American ceviches and tartares. Skewered meats and a variety of eclectic, small plates round out the innovative menu.
For home cooks who want to entertain this Memorial Day, the Starks suggested setting up a buffet with some grilled fish, shellfish and mollusks for a make-your-own seafood taco station.
A taco buffet station is an easy way to feed a crowd without breaking the bank or your own back. Just make the salsas ahead of time, then grill the seafood and the tortillas at the last minute.
At the restaurant, the Starks serve Grilled Fish Tacos marinated in achiote paste and tangerine olive oil, with the "usual suspects": grilled corn tortillas, roasted tomato salsa, pickled onions and some avocado salsa on the side.
"The same marinade would work with fish, shrimp or scallops," Stark said. "We like to use a firm white fish like mahi-mahi, but you could also use a local cod, like ling cod, or snapper."
Sliced cabbage is the traditional foil for the soft, unctuous fish in fish tacos, because it adds a bit of crunch and texture. But in spring, it's more seasonal to go with a young lettuce.
"The cabbage is gone now, but you've got beautiful arugula and fennel, to make a Sonoma-style taco," Stark said. "And instead of a tomato salsa, you could marinate some cherry tomatoes."
At Willi's, the fish tacos come wrapped in a rustic, handmade corn tortilla from La Tortilla Factory. The tortillas can be kept warm in foil or in an insulated tortilla holder.