I half expected him to sprout fins and dive face first into the nearby L.A. River, breathing through gills as he raced rapids toward the Pacific. Instead, proud pescatarian Johnny Nalbandian manned the grill at Franky & Johnny’s, dispensing advice about the best ways to grill, sauté and marinate seafood.
Nalbandian has devoted his life to seafood. His grandfather was a freshwater fisherman in Armenia, and Johnny founded J&J Seafood Company in 1974. On September 25, he opened Franky & Johnny’s Fisherman’s Seafood Outlet in Elysian Valley with Franky Atallah, promising Angelenos a “seafood value revolution” and reserving his stomach for three seafood-centric meals per day.
“One of the keys with grilling seafood is the hottest fire, and cooking it medium,” says Nalbandian. “A lot of people tend to do two things. They have a low fire, which is not good. When we do our grilling here, we start at 11:30 and turn on the grill at 11. I like it to be 5 or 600 degrees when I throw the fish on there. Nalbandian prefers grilling with mesquite wood since it adds “smoky flavor,” but it’s not practical at Franky & Johnny’s. Instead he uses a gas grill.
Nalbandian advised cooking fish for “a minute, a minute and a half an inch…Two minutes for the tilapia [for example] on one side, and then two minutes on the other side…I like closing the top and letting the smoke swirl around.” If you cook your fish to medium, “you want the filet to be opaque in the middle because it’s still cooking when you put it on the plate.”
With fish like Arctic char, he cooks skin side down, so it doesn’t stick to the grill. “I like finishing it on the griddle because it gives it a great sear,” he says.
Of course, seafood isn’t limited to grilling. Nalbandian also discussed sautéing. “The thinner the fish, it’s better to sauté,” says Nalbandian. Add oil to coat the pan. “If you’re going to use olive oil, throw a little white wine in there,” he says. “ Cut the onion in half, use it like a paintbrush, don’t burn your fingers, move it around the pan, throw the fish in there. Let’s say it’s thin like the tilapia, throw it in there for two minutes on one side, take that onion, chop it up, throw it around the fish and it will start caramelizing. After two minutes, throw the onion over on top of the caramelized onions, cook it for another two minutes. Have some bread ready, pita bread. Put this fish on the bread, let all the juices on the bread, it will be delicious.” Scallops and shrimp are also great for sautéing. He thinks Mexican shrimp are especially good for sautéing, due to their “snap flavor…Bite into it and it snaps.”
If you’re looking for a fish marinade, Nalbandian recommends 85% Italian dressing, 5% Worcestershire sauce, 5% white wine and 5% seasoning. He suggests Fisherman’s Wharf Italian dressing – loaded with red and white vinegar, garlic, basil, lemon juice, oregano, etc. – since he helped to develop the brand; and Spike seasoning, “since it’s made from all vegetables” and delivers “great zip.” Marinate the fish for at least 48 hours “to get a good cure.”
If you don’t want to marinate or grill, Franky & Johnny’s hosts a daily cookout on the “pier,” beginning at 11:30 AM. The two fish are different each day. During my visit, the options consisted of Arctic char and tilapia. My combo deal included a fillet of each fish, came with red cabbage slaw and Italiano pasta and cost $12.95.
Note: Franky & Johnny’s relocated to 10604 Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, and is now closed.