Cheesecake Factory is a mid-priced casual dining restaurant chain that, of course, specializes in cheesecakes. Ironically, the only menu items not made from scratch on the premises are the cheesecakes, which come to the restaurants frozen, to be thawed as needed. The menu is pretty large, and, in my opinion, too large, with over 200 items. But the food is pretty darn good and features some “upscale” items that seem to be responding to food trends rather than being based on any creative impulse. On the appetizer menu, and also featured as part of the Skinnylicious menu, is Ahi carpacio. As described on the menu, it is thin slices of raw ahi tuna, wasabi pesto, avocado, and a togarashi aioli. It is also served with a soy-ginger dipping sauce and a marinated cucumber and pickled ginger salad. This may still lead to some questions: What is ahi tuna? What is the wasabi pesto? And what is Togarashi aioli? For that matter, what is carpaccio?
Carpaccio originally referred to thin slices of raw beef. This Italian tradition took it’s name from Vittore Carpaccio, a noted Italian painter. The story goes that carpaccio’s inventor, Giuseepe Cipriani, first served this dish while there was a very popular exhibit of the artist going on in Venice, Italy. Carpaccio was basically chilled and thinly sliced seasoned beef with arugula and a mayonnaise flavored with Worcestershire and Tabasco (later called carpaccio sauce).
Today, the term carpaccio no longer refers to just the raw beef dish, but is more of a preparation method, and can refer to any thinly sliced meat or fish laid on a plate, usually in an overlapping or “tiled” fashion, and sprinkled with seasonings, sauces, etc. This presentation is the reason that Cheesecake factory calls the dish carpaccio, even though the flavors are Asian and sashimi inspired.
Now for the tuna. Thinly sliced raw tuna is self-explainable. If you’ve ever had sashimi, you’ve probably had that. Cheesecake factory claims that the ahi tuna is “number one sushi grade.” Is this so? Well, it depends on what question you are answering. It is possible that the individual tunas that are used for the sliced ahi tuna are top grade tunas. And, since ahi tuna is used for sushi very often, this could be an honest assessment. However, if you are asking whether ahi tuna is considered the “number 1” type of tuna for sushi, it isn’t. So, by that standard, ahi tuna, even if it is top sushi grade ahi, is never “the most prized.” That honor would go to bluefin tuna.
Top Sushi Tuna is Bluefin
Bluefin tuna, in Japanese, is called kuro maguro, meaning “black tuna,” or hon-maguro, meaning “true tuna.” They are one of the most rare and desirable food-grade fishes in the world, and as a result of this, and the ever-increasing demand for sushi, they are severely over-fished. A single bluefin can grow up to 14 feet long and weight over 1300 pounds, and, depending on the grade of the tuna, can fetch a fisherman thousands of dollars! One giant bluefin, caught in November 2012 by an amateur off the coast of Nova Scotia was projected to auction in Japan for over $32,000. This, for a fish that, in the 1900’s were known as horse marckerel. In the west, at least, their strongly flavored red flesh was considered to be fit only for dog or cat food. Now they are more like the gold nuggets of the sea, if not the diamonds. While most of these tuna are caught one by one by hand, they are increasingly being caught by ranching or herding in the South Pacific and Mediterranean. Entire schools of young bluefin tuna are encircled into “purse seine” nets and then the nets are pulled to an area near the short where they are raised for a few months before they are harvested and exported. This kind of practice, along with overfishing in general, as severely endangered the bluefin. So, you cannot blame the Cheesecake factory for not having bluefin tuna on its menu. It would be too expensive for the price-point.
Ahi Tuna Great for Sashimi and Sushi
Ahi tuna is what Yellowfin tuna is called in Hawaii. In Japan these are called Kihada maguro. These do not grow as large as bluefin tuna, and top off at about 6 feet long and 300 pounds. They are mostly found in tropical waters. Ahi has a milder flavor than bluefin, which can make it desirable for some sushi and sashimi lovers. The texture is firm and the flesh is pink to red. Bigeye tuna is sometimes sold as ahi as well, and these are pretty much indistinguishable for most people. Ahi is what you get most often in sushi shops. Both yellowfin and big eye are sold in blocks. Based on any realistic measure, as long as the yellowfin (or big eye) is a top grade sushi fish, you are getting your money’s worth.
Although both yellowfin and big eye are lighter fish than bluefin, and they are sometimes used for canning, they are also great tuna for eating raw or cooked fresh. The most commonly used tuna for “light canned (or pouched) tuna, on the other hand, is Skipjack.
To prepare the sliced ahi for its Ahi Carpaccio, Cheesecake Factory slices the tuna in to equal portions, places the slices between layers of plastic wrap, and gently pounds into thin, flat pieces. The togarashi aioli is drizzled over the slices of tuna, and the sliced avocado is placed on the dish.
Togarashi is a Japanese name for chiles. However, in this context it refers to a Japanese seven-spice mixture containing ground red chile pepper, sanshō, roasted orange peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, hemp seed, ground ginger, and nori seaweed (or aonori). This mix is also called Shichimi Togarashi or Nanami Togarashi.
Aioli is a sort of garlic mayonnaise, made with egg yolks, oil, and lemon juice. A more basic version might skip the egg yolks, and just use garlic ground with salt and then mixed with olive oil and lemon. Togarashi Aioli, is, as the name implies, an aioli flavored with togarashi spice. This can be found at Asian specialty stores. It can be easily mimicked at home by mixing togarashi spice into store-bought mayonnaise.
The wasabi pesto is probably nothing more than a pesto with a wasabi paste of powder added. This is unlikely to be real wasabi, but is probably horseradish mixed with mustard and green tint. The wasabi pesto is sprinkled sparingly on top. The sliced avocado is there to provide a creamy coolness to offset the chili spices and pungent wasabi.
Soy-Ginger Dipping Sauce
Soy-ginger dipping sauce is pretty much what the name implies. You can find this typical Asian condiment in Asian specialty stores bottled and ready to go. Recipes may vary but the two main ingredients are soy and minced ginger. Usually, a sweetener is added along with an acid to balance the flavor, which may be rice wine vinegar, or lime. Sesame seed oil or other oil may also be in the sauce. Garlic and scallions are often included. The soy-ginger dipping sauce is served on the side for dipping.
Green onions and sesame seeds are sprinkled over the whole dish as a final garnish.
The ahi carpaccio at Cheesecake factory is really a good start to a meal, and it is a fairly large portion of fish. Together with the generous slices of avocado, this could easily be a meal in itself, and quite a healthy one at that. Cheescake factory also has an Ahi Tartare on the Skinnylicious menu. The ingredients are pretty much the same, except the tartare is chopped fish, instead of thin slices and the dish is served in a molded, layered, stack, with crispy wonton wedges for dipping. If you are trying to choose between the two, go for the carpaccio. The sliced fish is a much better representation of the quality of the ahi tuna, and the presentation makes it easier to get the flavors you want in each bite.