Indecision. Conspicuousness. Mediocrity. Subterfuge. Disappointment. A classic dish with a resume like this should already have perished alongside the ham in aspics and salmon molds that haunt an American culinary past. A silly, rhyming name (made much worse by a juvenile contraction) should have been the death blow. Surf n’ Turf persists, though, a recurring zombie of seaside and landlocked restaurants from sea to shining sea. Maybe that very appeal of bicoastaliality is the dish’s lifeline; perhaps the symbolism of a plate groaning beneath the fruits of a wholesome land and a fecund sea is just too good to cast aside. But then why isn’t Surf n’ Turf our national dish?
The classic preparation is either a demonstration of restraint or an opportunity to check off the list of regrets that opened this short essay. Ideally the beef is premium, relatively lean and not too large. A small filet mignon—better, perhaps to call it petite—is the unrivaled correct choice when grilled properly. Next to that morsel: a modest lobster alive when boiled. Lemon and parsley are welcome, Béarnaise sauce borderline. So what’s the problem? Cost. Two premium proteins, even if dining at home, is an expensive premise. Restaurants manage the issue by altering expectations. A single filet becomes filet tips or shell steak smothered in mushrooms (effectively hiding the diminutive portion), and the lobster loses its claws and body—the tail is “butterflied,” which is menu code for “pushed out of the shell to make it look bigger.” Everything swims in sauces or hides beneath a shower of parsley. Lemon wedges fill in any remaining gaps. Cost is driven down, but the consumer price remains lofty.
The other route—one I endorse to an extent—is to alter the theoretical premise of the dish. Higher concept restaurants have been doing this for years. I’ve had scallops filled with braised beef cheeks. I’ve also had bone marrow foam alongside razor clams. This might sound avant guard, but the idea trickles down the line (and far back, historically). Bacon-wrapped scallops? Crab-topped steak? What about that Victorian classic beef and oyster pie? Spanish paella? Food from the Azores seems not even to draw much of a distinction between surf and turf: pork, sausage, mollusks and fish appearing in conjunction is standard.
I find the best approach is to think in terms of dishes. One pork dish, and one scallop dish. One platter of barbecued chicken alongside a poached salmon. Skirt steaks grilled and served with roasted tomatoes and a dish of rare tuna, sliced over arugula. When two dishes are made, options multiply. One or the other can be eaten; one can be eaten, then the other; they can be eaten together. The user determines the level of harmony, from none, to two proceeding courses, to an experimental pairing of land and sea.
Harmony is really the point. Azoreans know well that pork fat enriches otherwise lean shellfish. Meaty oysters seem at home with braised beef and bacon has never detracted from a scallop. These examples rely upon each other, which, sadly, reveals the downfall of classic surf n turf. Filet with lobster is a pairing based upon pretense—the expectation of luxury—rather than palpable harmony. Apart they are noble; together they are complementary in name only.