It’s No Fish Story: Handline Coastal California Offers Fish Market

Handline Fish Market Ceviche

By Ellen Shick

It’s a cold and dark June morning at 4:00. The sky is cerulean. At Pier 45 in San Francisco Bay, a fisherman unloads halibut caught with a hook and line. The crew at TwoXSea packs the fish in ice, loads it into the truck and sets off for Handline Coastal California in Sebastopol.

Head Chef Sam Ehrlich arrives at Handline at 8:00 a.m. to greet the day’s catch. He sets aside some fish for ceviche or the fish burger then cuts fillets for his fish market customers.

At 9:00 a.m., the social media blast on Instagram alerts the community. Come to Handline and pick up your fresh halibut fillets caught just this morning.

Fish does not get any fresher than that, unless you catch it yourself.

Welcome to Handline’s Fish Market.

Handline Fish Market

Fresh Halibut from the Fish Market

What is sustainable fishing?

Handline Coastal California in Sebastopol, CA, received the Slow Food Snail of Approval in January 2019. Their dedication to sustainability is the primary reason. What does it mean to fish sustainably? As indicated in the name Handline, it refers to a fishing method that eliminates what is called “bycatch.”

I sat down in the shady outdoor seating with Sam Ehrlich, head chef at Handline, and he explained it to me. “The name of the game is NO BYCATCH. When you are fishing with hook and line (fishing rod and reel), if you catch a fish you don’t want, you put him back. It’s about fishing in a manner that allows you release the things you are not targeting,” said Sam.

Sam Ehrlich Handline staff

Sam Ehrlich (in yellow T-shirt) and his crew

Sam Ehrlich, 33, grew up in Florida with a fishing pole in his hand. In his dad’s boat, father and son spent many pleasurable days fishing along the Florida Coast. Sam remembers, “You park your car, take off your shoes and walk out to the water. Looking over the flat, you can see the fish tails poking out. That is the type of fishing I hope to share with my boys when they are big enough.” Oh, did I mention that Sam is the proud father of 6-week-old twin boys? He returned to work last week, and somehow keeps his motor running.

Sam learns the ropes in San Francisco

After high school in 2007, Sam moved west and honed his cooking skills in San Francisco, working for Mission Rock Resort, near the SF Giants’ ballpark. It was fast and furious. When he and his wife decided to start a family, they moved north. A year and a half ago, Sam landed the job as head chef at Handline. He loves working for owners Natalie Goble and Lowell Sheldon. Sam appreciates the care that goes into every aspect of the business. “I want to inspire the next group of chefs and to be able to inject some of what makes this area very special.” said Sam.

Handline Menu

On the menu

Fish Purveyors

Handline’s purveyors are passionate about sustainable fishing and are stewards of the sea. In other words, they reduce habitat destruction and leave enough fish for future generation. In addition, they pay fishermen/women a fair wage and fish as locally as possible. Mostly, they fish with a rod and hook to eliminate bycatch.

Handline fish Market

Water 2 Table operates from April to October to bring the best seasonally available hook and line fish to restaurants. Some of their products include halibut, king salmon, Dungeness crab, oysters, and black cod. The seafood comes from Bay Area and Half Moon Bay hook and line fishing fleets.

TwoXSea out of Sausalito also lives the ethos. On their website, they say, “Our goal is to alter the way seafood is farmed, caught and handled from fishery to plate.” Their products include halibut, clams, mussels and oysters. The peak is from early spring through late summer. 

Handline fish Market

Freshly shucked oysters

Red – Algae Feed from UC Davis

Sam and Handline’s owners want to keep delicious fish on the menu throughout the year and support businesses that are doing everything right by the environment. An important year-round supplier for Handline is McFarland Springs Trout Farm in Susanville, CA. The trout eat a red-algae based food that was carefully designed at UC Davis. McFarland Springs Trout Farm uses a very thoughtful approach with a product that restaurant owners can rely on. The good news – because the trout eat a vegetarian diet, they never accumulate mercury, thus providing a super healthy product. 

Handline uses McFarland Springs trout in their in-house smoked trout salad. Thanks to the trout farm, when salmon is out of season, you can still enjoy the signature fish burger.

Handline’s Goals

Sam sells and handles fresh fish that are caught with care, with conservation and sustainability in mind. He connects that line to the community. Sometimes Sam buys crab and salmon directly from commercial fishermen. When he meets the local suppliers, Sam feels even more connected to the food in Northern California.

In addition to serving delicious dishes made with their fish, Handline wishes to share the abundance with customers. They want support companies like Water2Table, TwoXSea and all the fishermen and women who value sustainably caught seafood and who don’t just pay lip service to these ideals, but live them each and every time they go out to sea.

The Handline fish market offers halibut and salmon. If you want the oysters and other delectable treats, you’ll just have to come into Handline and work your way through the menu.

Handline outdoor seating

Handline outdoor seating

Bring the whole family and sit outside under the oak trees. Kids (and adults) can play ping-pong and finish off the meal with a soft serve ice cream, reminiscent of Foster’s Freeze Drive-in.

Handline and Fosters Freeze

The new meets the old: Handline restaurant and Soft Serve.

Here’s how to get Handline’s fish market alerts:

The first step is to follow Handline on Instagram (handline.sebastopol) and look for the Fish Market icon. If you don’t use Instagram, be sure to subscribe to the Handline newsletter. When in doubt, call the restaurant and find out the current offerings (707-827-3744). Open 11 – 10 daily.

Need some recipe ideas?

Sam’s favorite is ceviche (click here for his own recipe). He told me, “It’s hard to go wrong with fresh fish cured in a little bit of lime juice. I’m the kind of guy that loves to steam it up, shuck it, send it out; give me all the dipping sauces and the butter, and I’ll just put on the bib and dip, dip, dip.”
Thanks for the tip, Sam!

Try it at home!

Last Friday afternoon, my husband and I headed for Handline after checking Instagram. We brought our dog, sat outside in the shady patio, and after enjoying some local beer, we took home a 12-oz halibut fillet, packed in ice for the ride home.

As we watched our dinner sizzling in the oven, we felt proud to support hook and line fishing. In the same way that locally grown produce tastes so incredible, our halibut fillet tasted of the ocean and each bite had the integrity of hard-working conservators of the sea.
Fresh Halibut

Halibut for dinner

About Ellen Shick

Ellen Shick is a proud Slow Food member and is always on the lookout for ways to feed the world, one delicious meal at a time. Traveling through Italy has become a passion and life journey. Ellen’s blog An Italian Dish is her place to share travel adventures, recipes, photos, books, and stories about her love of Italy, the food and the people.