Lionfish, the savory menace, swims its way onto restaurant menus

A venomous fish with destructive habits has surfaced as a tasty meal at several South Florida restaurants.

“We love serving, and our customers love dining on, lionfish,” said Michael Ledwith, chef-owner of Chef Michael’s in Islamorada. “We have had a few squeamish folks converted to lionfish lovers after a small sampling.”

Fish Fish in North Miami added lionfish to its selection of fresh-caught specials soon after opening in February 2013.

“Our fishermen were catching lionfish in their lobster traps,” co-owner Rebecca Nachlas Franks said. “We were discussing it one day when they were bringing the lobsters in, and I requested that they bring the lionfish in as well.

“In addition to our guests having a new taste experience, it opens up a discussion on lionfish and its impact on our reefs,” Nachlas Franks added. “We like to say at Fish Fish, ‘We are saving the reefs one lionfish at a time.’ ”

Native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, lionfish became popular aquarium fish because of their colorful vertical stripes; broad, fan-like fins; and tall dorsal spikes, a venomous defense mechanism. The attraction faded fast for some aquarium owners.

“The lionfish grew quickly. They consumed all those other expensive reef fish that people were also keeping in their aquarium. And in a number of cases people got stung while cleaning their aquariums,” said Lad Akins, director of special projects at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo. “Some people were relocating and just didn’t want to take the aquarium with them. All those things provided incentive to release the fish.”

Since being dumped into Miami-area waters in the mid-1980s, lionfish have spread exponentially along the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

Lionfish reproduce quickly, prey on native species and have few natural enemies. State wildlife officials recently banned the importation and sale of lionfish, effective Aug. 1.

The silver lining is that to the human palate, lionfish is a delicate, flaky fish that’s often compared to hogfish and snapper.

In 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled its Eat Lionfish campaign, urging chefs, wholesalers and fishing communities to promote the savory menace as a food choice. It can be served whole in a number of preparations — fried, pan-seared, grilled, blackened — and used in gazpacho and ceviche.

The Reef Foundation lists nearly 50 restaurants, including 10 in South Florida, that serve lionfish. It also sells its Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy for $16.95, with proceeds supporting marine research and the lionfish-reduction program.

Lazy Days Restaurant in Islamorada is among those with lionfish on the menu.

“At first some customers were turned off, thinking it was poisonous,” co-owner Michelle Ledesma said. “What we would do is fry small bites and offer it to the tables. Once people tasted how good it was, we could not keep it in the restaurant.”