Saturday, May 3, 2014

A tale of two turbots: one baked in salt and one not

Ever since I first had this dish in a restaurant in Madrid in the 1980s, I have wanted to bake a fish in salt. I remember the head waiter bringing a mountain of hardened golden salt to the table and then cracking it open to reveal a moist, evenly cooked and fragrant whole fish. I am still not sure just how much was due to the novelty of the presentation and how much to the flavor—but I have always considered it the best fish I have ever eaten.
So when our friends Jean-Louis Dumonet (president of the Master Chefs of France and executive chef at the Union Club) and his beautiful wife Karen came up on Saturday, I asked Jean-Louis if we could bake a fish in salt. He brought with him another great chef, our mutual friend Sylvain Portay (a restaurant consultant whose resumé includes corporate chef at Alain Ducasse Enterprises, executive chef of Le Cirque 2000, and so on) with them. He also brought two turbots.
You are unlikely to find turbot, a large, flat fish, at your local fish store, and if you do, it will be of the aqua-farmed variety, which is not quite as good as these, which were wild—fished from the North Atlantic Sea and flown to New York to be served at one of our top restaurants. 
We baked each fish on a large cookie sheet, one surrounded with garlic cloves (in their skins) and the other buried in a cement like mixture of kosher salt and egg whites to which cracked white pepper and pieces of bay leaf had been added. The salt-encrusted fish was baked for 50 minutes at 450° F and the plain one for  just 30 minutes in the same oven. 
We enjoyed a healthy portion of each fish. They were both so wonderful that it was hard to choose. Garlic lovers preferred the fish cooked with the garlic, not because it had a garlic flavor—it did not—but because they could eat the delicious roasted garlic on the side. I had a very slight preference for the salt-encrusted. The salt insulates the fish, cooking it gently and evenly to preserve its delicate flavor and fine texture—and, of course, its presentation is quite spectacular.

The Entire Menu
(I made the salsa, the veggies and the dessert)
Before Lunch: At 11:00 a.m. in the kitchen, the chefs were busy preparing the asparagus and the fish, so Gerard refreshed their palates with a Saint-Bris 2012, 100% Sauvignon Blanc from the region of Chablis, to accompany the crevettes grises they were munching on. They had brought these tiny gray shrimp, which do not exist here but are a specialty of the waters off the coast of Brittany. 

Aperitif:   Around noon we served an Ahi Tuna and Avocado Salsa as well as Carpaccio of Sea Scallops, with a 2010 Chablis.
First Course: White Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce, with which Gerard proudly served a Coulée de Serrant 1998, Vin de Loire 100% Chenin Blanc.
Main Course: Baked Turbot with Baby Yukon Gold potatoes and Carrots, with a magnum of Chassagne-Montrachet 1996 1er cru. 
Cheese: An assortment of cheeses, including a spectacular aged Comté with a mixed green salad. Gerard stayed with white wine, which he felt paired better with some of the cheeses, but some of us preferred the more classic pairing with a Saint Estèphe 2010, Château Haut-Beauséjour.
Dessert: Lemon Soufflé with a Mango Coulis, accompanied by a Vouvray Moelleux de 1985 de la Vallée de la Loire. 

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