If you’re looking for a summer appetizer that looks (and tastes) gourmet but is still relatively easy to assemble, try whipping up these Blackened Halibut Cheeks from Chef Marcello Mazzoleni of Lighthouse Bar & Grill. They’re light, summery, spicy, and practically guaranteed to impress your guests. 

 If you’ve never tried halibut cheeks before, know that these delicacies resemble scallops in both texture and flavor. We recommend sourcing them fresh from your local fishmonger for the best results. 

Meet the Chef 

For Mazzoleni, this dish harkens back to his career’s earliest days. Mazzoleni learned to butcher meat and fish while living in Alaska during his teen years, and being raised in an Italian-influenced household meant that he became familiar with cooking at a young age. He got his professional start as a fish butcher back in his hometown of San Francisco, where he eventually attended culinary school. 

 After graduation, Mazzoleni worked for establishments ranging from a fine-dining country club in Southern California to a fish house called Pacific Catch in the Bay Area, various restaurants in Las Vegas, and a large-scale catering company based out of Alaska.  

 Mazzoleni and his family moved to the North Sound during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is his first year as head chef with Lighthouse Bar & Grill. His passion is serving locally-sourced ingredients in the most elegant and artful way possible. 

Fish Ingredients 

3 tablespoons Cajun seasoning  

12-15 ounces halibut cheeks 

¼ cup chickpeas 

1 quart of high heat cooking oil  

Additional oil to coat fish 

Cucumber seeds to garnish 

Spinach Puree Ingredients 

2 cups packed spinach leaves 

2 roasted garlic cloves 

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil 

Pinch of sea salt 

Pinch of ground black pepper 

Squeeze of ¼ lemon 


Preserved Lemon Gel Ingredients 

5 ounces preserved or regular fresh lemon juice 

1 teaspoon lemon zest 

2 teaspoons water 

2 teaspoons sugar 

½ teaspoon agar agar powder 

Assembly Instructions 

Makes 3 servings.

  • Make the preserved lemon gel by combining all ingredients in a saucepan.  
  • Bring mixture to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  • Remove from heat, pour into a flat vessel, and cool in the fridge until solidified.  
  • Roughly cut up gel and blend until smooth.  
  • Pass gel through a sieve to smooth it out, then set aside. 
  • Make the spinach puree by sauteing or steaming the spinach until slightly wilted but still green.  
  • Squeeze out excess water and combine spinach pulp with remaining ingredients in a blender.  
  • Blend spinach until smooth (or do so with an immersion blender if you prefer). Set aside. 
  • For the fried chickpeas, heat 1 quart oil in a 1-gallon pot to 350 degrees. 
  • Fry chickpeas for 2 minutes until crispy. 
  • Transfer to a bowl and add a large additional pinch of Cajun seasoning. Set aside. 
  • For the fish, coat the halibut cheeks in oil and rub them in the Cajun seasoning.  
  • In a very hot cast iron skillet (if applicable), sear the cheeks on both sides for about 1-3 minutes per side depending on how thick they are. Fish should cook to about 120 degrees internally. 
  • Assemble fish, fried chickpeas, spinach puree, and lemon gel on a plate. If desired, garnish with cucumber seeds.