Costas Spiliadis

‘Love thy fishmonger,’ and other relationship advice from the Greek fish aficionado

Chef Costas Spiliadis, owner of Estiatorio Milos in the Cosmopolitan, knows a thing or two about not just selecting the right fish—just take a look at the specimens he proudly displays daily on ice at his restaurant—but also of cooking them properly on the grill. The Greek restaurateur has made it his mission to present his guests with some of the most pristine seafood available in the world, which he treats as simply as possible to let his high-quality products take center stage.

And Spiliadis gets the best product because he has nurtured his relationships with the people who catch the fish: small producers, fishermen and farmers all over the Mediterranean and North America. His buyers, who are responsible for the product served in his restaurants, are directly related to either Spiliadis or his business, and he has taught them personally.

You can emulate Spiliadis’ method to secure the finest fish for your own table by getting more involved in the process. “My approach would be to develop a very honest relationship with your fishmonger at the place where you buy your fish,” Spiliadis advises. Fresh fish should never smell “fishy.” It should smell of the sea and should be firm to the touch, not mushy. One of the long-standing rules of thumb for selecting a whole fish was to look for clear eyes, not cloudy, and for scales to be translucent as well. Spiliadis discounts this method, saying that sometimes fishermen hold fish up by the eyes, which can cause cloudiness. As far as scales, if the fish has been on ice, that will sometimes cause the scales to become cloudy and opaque.

Locally, grocery stores such as Whole Foods have people behind the counter who might be more aware of when, where and how the fish was caught. “They really know how to take care of you if they want to help you, so I would recommend sticking with one vendor, in one place, and go in and give them feedback,” Spiliadis says. Tell your fishmonger if the last piece of fish you got wasn’t good, but also be sure to thank him when he gives you something that turned out to be great. That thank-you can go a long way toward establishing that all-important relationship.

When it comes to grilling, Spiliadis prefers to prepare a fish whole, likening it to a bone-in rib steak as opposed to a filet mignon. His whole lavraki (Mediterranean sea bass) is the quintessential grilled fish that is available on his menu at Milos.

If you’re not ready to dive into grilling a whole fish, Spiliadis suggests tuna or swordfish filets, as they tend to be more forgiving. “To do a whole fish [can be] difficult to for home cooks,” Spiliadis concedes. “A filet is difficult to go wrong with. Opt for a fatty piece of fish with dark meat, which is healthy and full of omega [fatty acids], and resistant to abuse on the grill.”

Finally, the secret weapon for delicious fish from the grill is how you dress it once it’s cooked. His answer couldn’t be more simple: three parts extra virgin olive oil, one part freshly squeezed lemon juice, some sea salt and a little bit of oregano, mixed well. A familiar dressing that can be found on the grilled lavraki, it reflects exactly what Spiliadis does with everything he serves: Adorn as little as possible, and let the true nature of the ingredient shine.

Going Greek

You get what you pay for. “You do not negotiate price if you want quality,” Spiliadis says. “Fisherman are hardworking people, and they don’t like to be bargained or negotiated with. If you want a good piece of fish, be ready to pay.”

Greek fish = Greek wine. Grilled fish with light flavors requires a light, slightly crisp white. At Milos, the lavraki can be paired with Greek wines such as the Biblia Chora Assyrtico sauvignon blanc or Domaine Gerovassiliou viognier from Spiliadis’ own label, Cava Spiliadis, which he imports from Greece.

Being responsible with tuna and swordfish. While Spiliadis recognizes that tuna and swordfish specifically are overfished, it is the responsibility of the consumer to be aware of what you are buying. “With swordfish and with tuna, all are well regulated,” he says. “As long as I buy from legitimate sources in America, knowing that it is caught by fishermen who are doing their job according to the law, I feel confident I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.” Opt for line- or wild-caught fish whenever possible, and eschew farm-raised fish.

And the other fish in the sea. When it comes to sustainability, Spiliadis trusts in government regulation of fishing practices. “Sustainability is an important thing for me, from an ideological but also a practical point of view. I have four grandchildren and one coming. I want them to be successful continuators of the business. I want them to have the fish!”