By James Monteleone

Triplicate Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - While most struggle just to get a table at the nation's top seafood restaurants, for Rep. Mike Thompson, top chefs bring their kitchens and wild salmon recipes to Capitol Hill.

Chefs and members of wild salmon interest groups have been in Washington this week lobbying for congressional support for programs that will improve the wild salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest.

A letter reiterating the benefits of wild-caught salmon was signed by 200 of the country's renowned chefs and restaurant owners and given to Thompson and some of his colleagues at a reception Tuesday night. And as an incentive, members of Congress were treated to platefuls of the famous fish.

But for Thompson, who has been a continued supporter of salmon restoration, the chefs are cooking to the choir.

andquot;This is about expanding the community of interest that supports wild salmon,andquot; Thompson said of the event. andquot;It's not an issue of over fishing. The fishers in the state didn't bring this problem around.

This is about habitat destruction, poor water management and dams that have caused a decline in the fisheries.andquot;

The chefs' backing for the wild fish comes down to flavor and texture.

The wild salmon offer andquot;complexity, balance and character that you just don't find in a mass produced product,andquot; said Barton Seaver, executive chef of the Washington restaurant Hook.

Farmed salmon and wild caught fish are as different as boxed wine and a bottle of the world's best, he said.

Complaints about farm-raised salmon include its manipulated color, less distinct texture and bland smell.

andquot;Not only will wild salmon provide a better quality of dining, but it's also a real marker for the quality of our environment,andquot; Thompson said. andquot;The entire watershed is measured by the health of our wild salmon.andquot;

The goal is for people to andquot;have a clear understanding of how significant this is beyond just the kitchen,andquot; said Greg Higgens, chef and owner of Higgens Restaurant in Portland, Ore. andquot;It represents communities and it represents our long-term success with our environment.andquot;

For fish-eaters, wild-caught salmon has health benefits too, said California Dietetic Association spokeswoman Eileen J. Peterson. While farm-raised salmon is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, shown to reduce heart disease, the fat in the wild fish is even better for you because the fish can swim freely and eat a better diet.

andquot;Real fish don't eat pellets,andquot; Thompson said at the reception.

For many, the higher cost of wild salmon rules it out at the fresh fish counter. And since farm-fed salmon are more closely regulated than in the past, Peterson said, it's better for consumers to get some salmon in their diets than to snub the farmed fish.

But andquot;if a consumer really wants the best option,andquot; she said, andquot;I would say wild is it.andquot;