There was a time when eating your vegetables was a chore; today they're the hottest commodity in fine dining. Chef John Fraser has been at the forefront of that movement in New York City for the better part of a decade.
After working at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and then Le Taillevent and Maison Blanche in Paris, Fraser moved to Manhattan in the early 2000s and started opening his own ventures, including contemporary American eateries Dovetail and Narcissa. Both heavily featured vegetables.
In 2016, he opened Nix. The restaurant was celebrated as proof that a fully vegetarian tasting menu can be as exciting and thoroughly satisfying as the best ones in the city. While Nix has since closed, Fraser’s JF Restaurants now includes eight concepts across New York and California where vegetables play a crucial role, even with meat and fish on the menus. This focus stems from Fraser’s childhood in Los Angeles, where he grew up surrounded by California produce.
“We were kind of a sports-and-school family,” he says. So it wasn’t exactly cooking itself that first drew Fraser to the kitchen, but rather an interest in exploring his creative side. As he started taking restaurant jobs in college, that quickly developed into pure passion for the culinary world. “I just fell in love with the lifestyle and the culture,” he says. “After college, I wanted to spend a little bit more time in restaurants and cooking and seeing how that felt, and I just never stopped.”
Neither has his fascination with vegetables. Fraser champions not only these ingredients themselves, but also the massive range of preparations and cuisines they can shine in. His Aegean-centric restaurant Iris, for example, has four different preparations of eggplant on the menu: Fried and served with a tomato mayonnaise, pickled, baked into moussaka and roasted with golden raisins. At 701West, his Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner that’s still temporarily closed from the pandemic, mushroom replaced the more traditional choice of fish for a dish en papillote (baked in parchment paper), and sweet potato starred in an entrée with mustard butter and black truffles.
Naturally, fresh produce is the backbone of the whole-roasted branzino recipe that Fraser shares for a Christmas feast. The dish is straightforward and ideal for family-style sharing, so it’s a particularly suitable centerpiece for the holiday. “It's really, really easy prep, in that everything gets done ahead of time. All you have to do is pop it in the oven and dress it and put it on the table,” Fraser says. This means hosts can “stay away from spending time in the kitchen rather than with your guests.”
The fish may seem like the lead, but it’s the textural topping of sliced veggies and minced herbs that brings this dish to life. Everything’s accented by briny acidity from vinegar and capers, creating a flavor profile inspired by Southern France.
The ingredients can and should change with the seasons, as they do when Fraser serves this in his restaurants. Avocado and basil might make up this topping in the summer months, while here, Fraser uses fennel and tarragon for a more wintery feel. His recipe calls for minced herbs, but the chef notes that a thin julienne works too. Or you can simply tear the herbs by hand, a good option for novice cooks who aren’t as confident in their knife skills.
The fish gets stuffed with lemon and thyme, roasted and then dressed with the fresh topping, and that’s really all there is to it. Fraser says the most important thing is to make sure the oven is fully preheated before the fish goes in to achieve a crisp skin. “You want to kind of shock the fish so that it kind of seizes up,” he says. “If you start it too low, then it'll start to steam and it'll be a totally different texture.”
For sides that add heartiness to this light preparation, Fraser suggests potato puree or simply roasted carrots or broccoli. But since it’s “almost like a salad and a fish put together,” the branzino could certainly stand on its own too—with wine, of course.
The wine lists that beverage director Amy Racine built for Fraser’s restaurants are just as vibrant as his cuisine—from the program of benchmark classics that earned 701West a Restaurant Award to the expansive collection of Greek labels at Iris—so her pick would likely vary by venue.
Typically though, she’d pair this with Laura Aschero Liguria Vermentino from northwest Italy. “It has a pretty big presence of this saltwater, kind of briny, aromatic and mineral tone to it. So it's great with fish, and especially one that has capers or anything of a similar salinity to it,” Racine says, adding that the wine seems to have had some skin contact as well. “It has a little bit more texture and a little bit more bite to it. So for an entrée, there’s nothing lacking when you're doing white wine, because you do have a little bit of chew and kind of a rougher texture with it.”
Below are 10 other Wine Spectator suggestions for recently rated Italian white wines. They’re textured, with a fresh zing of acidity and saline notes to pair with the branzino, whether to embrace the Feast of the Seven Fishes holiday tradition or to simply enjoy an ultra-easy and delicious entrée any time of year.
Whole-Roasted Branzino with Soft-Herb Vinaigrette
- 3 to 4 1/2 pounds whole branzino, scaled and gutted (about 3 branzino)
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for rubbing
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 6 lemons, 3 sliced into thin rounds
- 3 small bunches thyme sprigs
- 1 1/5 cup capers, chopped
- 3 tablespoons tarragon, minced
- 3 tablespoons parsley, minced
- 3 tablespoons dill, minced
- 3 tablespoons chives, minced
- 1 1/2 cups red wine vinegar
- 2 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 bunches arugula
- 3 heads of fennel, cut in half, shaved (using a Japanese mandoline if you have one)
- 3 shallots, peeled, cut in thin rings (using a Japanese mandoline if you have one), rinsed with cold water
- Aleppo chili flakes
- Flaky salt such as Maldon
1. Preheat oven to 450° F degrees. Pat fish dry. Rub each cavity and skin with oil, then season generously with salt and pepper. Stuff cavities with lemon slices and a few sprigs of thyme. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Roast until the fish is just cooked through, 17 to 22 minutes, depending on size. Pierce the fish with a cake tester to the center of its flesh, wait 30 seconds, and then pull out and touch the cake taster to your lip. If it is hot, the fish is done!
3. While the fish is in the oven, mix capers, herbs, red wine vinegar and olive oil.
4. Toss the soft-herb vinaigrette together with the arugula, shaved fennel and washed shallot rings. Serve fish fillets topped with the mixture and finish with a pinch each of Aleppo flakes and Maldon salt. Serves 6.
10 Vibrant Italian White Wines
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Vermentino Toscana La Pettegola 2020
Score: 90 | $20
WS review: This rich version balances its creamy texture with vibrant structure and its peach and grapefruit flavors with notes of thyme, sage and pine. Fine length. Drink now through 2025. 58,000 cases made. From Italy.—Bruce Sanderson
Vermentino Colli di Luni-Tuscany Vigne Basse 2020
Score: 90 | $20
WS review: Precise and savory, like a cross between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, this white features floral, peach, gooseberry, grass and sage notes. Backed by a vibrant spine of acidity, finishing long and salty. Drink now. 3,333 cases made. From Italy.—B.S.
Vermentino Bolgheri Tenuta Guado al Tasso 2020
Score: 89 | $25
WS review: This zippy white reveals intensity from the get-go, with floral, lemon and thyme flavors that are bright and persistent. Ideal for shellfish and salads. Drink now. 2,800 cases imported. From Italy.—B.S.
CANTINE LUNAE BOSONI
Vermentino Colli di Luni-Liguria Grey Label 2020
Score: 89 | $25
WS review: A brisk, savory white, offering pine, sage, lemon and apple flavors. Refined and lingers with salty and bitter citrus elements. Drink now. 20,000 cases made. From Italy.—B.S.
Vermentino di Sardegna i Fiori 2019
Score: 89 | $20
WS review: A light- to medium-bodied white that shows some textural roundness, layered with a bright backbone of lemony acidity, creating a balanced frame for the creamy profile of baked apricot, strawberry, pastry cream and gingersnap biscuit flavors. Hints of petrol and spice linger on the lively finish. Drink now through 2023. 10,000 cases made. From Italy.—Alison Napjus
POGGIO AL TESORO
Vermentino Toscana Solosole 2020
Score: 89 | $25
WS review: Rich and almost viscous, revealing peach, melon, cut grass and wild herb flavors, this is also fresh, leaving a mouthwatering tanginess. Drink now through 2024. 9,583 cases made. From Italy. —B.S.
CASTELLO DI VOLPAIA
Vermentino Toscana Prelius 2019
Score: 89 | $20
WS review: This version shows a little weight, yet its vibrant structure quickly sharpens the profile. Lemon, apple and stone flavors linger on the finish. Drink now. 1,500 cases made. From Italy.—B.S.
MARCHESI DE’ FRESCOBALDI
Vermentino Toscana Massovivo Ammiraglia 2020
Score: 88 | $21
WS review: Bright and fruity, this white displays floral, peach and thyme flavors. Balanced, ending with a hint of salinity. Drink now. 1,000 cases imported. From Italy. —B.S.
TENUTE SELLA & MOSCA
Vermentino di Sardegna La Cala
Score: 88 | $16
WS review: A snappy, light-bodied white, offering a lightly fleshy mix of peach, tangerine and fresh tarragon flavors, with a chalky underpinning. Drink now. 35,000 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.
Vermentino di Gallura Branu 2019
Score: 88 | $18
WS review: This tangy, light-bodied white offers a fragrant overtone of grapefruit peel and lime blossom, with a snappy mix of pear, grated ginger and saline flavors on the palate. Drink now. 11,000 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.