A year ago, chef Lisa Giffen was auditioning for the role of executive chef at Audrey restaurant, which was to open in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood. Giffen already knew the restaurateur, Soa Davies Forrest, from their previous lives in the small world of New York fine dining: Giffen had worked in the kitchens of Blue Hill, Prune, Adour Alain Ducasse and Daniel, while Forrest had been Le Bernardin’s director of operations and head of research.
The two newly anointed Angelenos agreed, at least in theory, that a seasonal, accessible menu with a few worldly flourishes would work well at Audrey to convey a character similar to that of the museum, a project out of UCLA’s arts and architecture school focused on giving voice to emerging and underrepresented artists. It was early October, when the cooling weather makes for prime green-tomato season. To bring her vision to life, Giffen cooked a sample dish for Forrest: fish sauce– and sumac-marinated grilled sea trout topped with basil salad and a tart green-tomato salsa. Seasonal, uncomplicated, subtly eclectic.
And so a new chapter began. The duo, along with museum director Ann Philbin, opened Audrey in February. It’s been full steam ahead for Giffen. She credits her time as executive chef of the scrappily elegant Brooklyn oyster bar Maison Premiere with helping her develop a high degree of grit as head of the kitchen. “We did everything ourselves,” she says. “Like, I know how to fix a walk-in. You learn a lot from that and you’re humbled by that. It’s good. I like being able to be all hands in.”
Raised in Germany by American parents, Giffen brings a European inflection to the menu, and she’s been soaking up inspiration from Westwood as well. “There’s a great influence of Persian culture here,” she notes. She’s added Persian lime zest to her carta di musica appetizer, and she sprinkles bright-orange turmeric—a spice that hails from India but has been heavily adapted into Persian cuisine—into the marinade for the grilled sea trout.
Forrest, who oversees Audrey’s concise, Old World– and California-focused wine list, pairs the trout with the rich Spanish white variety Godello, pulling Rafael Palacios’ broad yet crisp Valdeorras Louro 2017. “It has vibrant green apple and citrus on the nose, with a hint of stone fruit at the finish,” Giffen says. The wine’s lushness counterbalances the fresh salsa and herbaceous basil salad while highlighting the marinade’s tangy sweetness and the fish’s richness. It’s an excellent sipping wine too, she adds. “You can have a little glass while you’re cooking.”
In this late-summer recipe, a side act steals the show: tart, zingy, subtly spicy green tomato salsa verde. Green tomatoes are generally red tomatoes that were picked before they had a chance to ripen fully, but some varieties, like green zebra, are cultivated to stay green forever. They tend to come in season in early and late summer, when the weather is moderate. Pureed, chopped and stirred together in a bright salsa, they add a lively punch to grilled sea trout. Read on for Giffen’s tips on how to bring this low-key recipe to summery life.
Know your trout. Sea trout is not the same as freshwater trout (the most popular variety of which is rainbow trout). Both are in the same family as salmon, and the ubiquitous salmon fillet makes for a fine substitute if you can’t find sea trout.
But what does sea trout taste like, you ask? “If salmon and [freshwater] trout had a baby together, then it would be sea trout,” Giffen says. Freshwater trout is delicate, mild and slightly nutty, and it breaks up into small flakes; salmon is fatty, rich and sweet, with larger flakes. Sea trout is milder than salmon—“it’s not going to coat your mouth with fish flavor”—but a little more assertive than freshwater trout.
Marinating your fish fillets shall set you free. If you’ve grown accustomed to buying your fish on the way home from work and cooking it right away, take your fish game up a notch by buying some nice-looking fillets one day earlier and marinating them in the fridge overnight in a mixture of acid, aromatics or herbs, and oil. This enriches the texture of the fish and imparts extra flavor throughout.
This particular marinade is a keeper. A mixture of garlic, turmeric, fish sauce, sumac and neutral grapeseed oil, this marinade would be equally at home on branzino or a protein like chicken, Giffen says. To her, the key ingredient in the marinade is fish sauce, a heady, funky-sweet brew extracted from fermented anchovies. “It lends to that golden color, and I would call it caramelization of sorts, that you can get on fish or chicken,” Giffen says.
If you’re grilling, grill right. In Giffen’s opinion, the most critical part of this recipe is heating your grill properly, then cleaning it before cooking. This is an important practice anytime you’re grilling, but particularly so with fish, which is more delicate and therefore likelier to fall apart than steak, chicken or burgers. The grill should be hot enough to burn any crud that’s stuck to the grates from your last grilling session until it looks like pure, black carbon. Then, use a grill brush to remove the debris; it should scrub off pretty easily. “Nonstick pans don’t work unless you wipe them out; you have to think of it as the same concept,” Giffen explains. “You can’t cook on a dirty pan. Whatever stuff is stuck on those grill grates is going to burn on your fish. I think of it as Velcro. When you pull it off, it attaches itself.”
Once your fish is on the grill, leave it. If you’re a practiced griller, you know this one, but it bears repeating. You may be tempted to check on your fish to gauge its progress, but try not to. “Leave it alone,” Giffen counsels. “Don’t touch it. Don’t mess with it too much.” Opening and closing the grill top lets heat escape, and moving the fish will prevent it from developing those seared-in grill marks you’re looking for.
It helps if you know your grill and whether it’s more or less powerful, but try to leave it alone until close to the four-minute mark. And remember that you do have another chance: If, after you flip the fillets, you find that they have cooked more than expected, dial down the cook time accordingly on the second side.
Pairing Tip: Why a Plump White Works with this Dish
Look for a ripe white with citrus and orchard fruit flavors to underscore the trout’s density, and subtle herbed accents to set off the green tomatoes and basil. The rich Spanish white grape Godello or a plump California Sauvignon Blanc would be ideal.
Grilled Sea Trout with Green Tomato Salsa Verde
Recipe courtesy of chef Lisa Giffen and tested by Wine Spectator’s Hilary Sims.
For the salsa verde:
- 1/2 pound green tomatoes
- 1 cup diced yellow or green tomatoes (green zebra or yellow varieties only)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
- 1/4 cup good fruity olive oil
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced radishes
For the sea trout:
- Four 5-ounce sea trout or wild salmon fillets
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 1/2 cup grapeseed oil
- 1 cup mix of opal basil leaves, green basil leaves, celery leaf and mint leaf
1. Core and roughly chop the 1/2 pound green tomatoes and process in a food mill or blender. Measure out 1 cup puree and reserve the rest for another use.
2. Put green tomato puree in small pot and heat over medium-high until reduced by half, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. Gently mix diced tomatoes, salt, Aleppo pepper and olive oil together with the cooled puree. Let macerate for at least 10 minutes. Add more salt and Aleppo pepper to taste. Salsa will keep for up to one day in the refrigerator.
3. Combine the garlic, fish sauce, turmeric, sumac and grapeseed oil in a blender and process until smooth. Place fish in a container and brush the marinade onto both sides of the fish. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator. Let marinate for at least 15 minutes and up to one day.
4. Heat a charcoal grill to hot embers (or for indoor cooking, see “Alternative”). Place the fish on the grill, skin-side down, diagonally across the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook without moving the fish until the skin is brown, well-marked and crisp, about 4 minutes. Using two spatulas, carefully flip the fish to the flesh side. Continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, until fish is cooked to medium doneness; a cake tester inserted into the thickest part of a fillet for 20 seconds should be just barely warm to the touch.
Alternative: Heat a grill pan on medium-high for 5 minutes, then add fish, skin-side down. Cook without moving the fish until the skin is brown, well-marked and crisp, about 4 minutes. Using two spatulas, carefully flip the fish to the flesh side. Continue cooking for 4 to 6 minutes, until fish is cooked to medium doneness; a cake tester inserted into the thickest part of a fillet for 20 seconds should be just barely warm to the touch.
5. Just before serving, stir the sliced radishes into the salsa. Transfer each fillet to a dinner plate and spoon the salsa verde over the fish, along with the juices. Garnish with the basil salad. Serves 4.