So often, you don’t need anything fancy to make restaurant-quality food. This is one of those times. “If the fish is amazing and fennel’s of a good quality and you have a great citrus, there’s no real way to mess this dish up,” promises Chris Flint, executive chef of the NoMad Los Angeles hotel and restaurant, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner for its wine list.
So how do you turn these basic ingredients into something special? Well, it does take a small measure of technique.
This citrusy, herbaceous dish, which appears on Flint’s winter menu, is a great example of the culinary approach on display at the NoMad’s L.A., New York and just-opened Las Vegas locations: Anchor each dish in a few key ingredients, then prepare each of those ingredients in a couple different ways, creating related yet distinct shades of flavor and texture.
In this case, fennel wedges are simmered in a bath of white wine, fennel seeds, star anise and lemon zest. Wonderfully aromatic, this stewed fennel provides a textural contrast with the crisp, fresh fennel fronds and shavings that garnish the dish.
In addition to the lemon zest in the cooking liquid, citrus segments are served fresh on the plate. The recipe calls for a mix of mandarin oranges, blood oranges and pomelos, but “just pick the best citrus that you love and put that on the dish,” Flint advises. “You’re looking for some acidity and sweetness, but then you can also just play with colors.” He suggests at least two, possibly three varieties for a bit of contrast.
Flint goes for as crispy a skin as possible on the fish. To achieve that, he gently seasons the skin side with kosher salt about 15 minutes before it’s time to cook. This draws water out of the skin—just be sure you blot it off before the fish meets the pan. “Oil and water don’t mix,” Flint cautions; too much water in the pan could cause a flare-up. As long as you dry off your salted fish before cooking it, however, “It forms almost a pellicle, so that when you do add it to the pan, there’s less curling and there’s less sticking.” This means the fish is more likely to cook evenly and quickly for that perfect golden-brown crust.
Next, heat the pan, then heat the oil to the point where you’re just beginning to see wisps of smoke. This is the Goldilocks zone of heat for fillets of lean, flaky white fish: It tells you the oil is hot enough that the fish won’t stick to the pan, but not so hot it’ll burn. Add the fish, skin-side down, and leave it alone for a couple minutes. Then, carefully slide a fish spatula or offset spatula underneath to check the skin’s color. If it’s a light golden-brown, turn the heat down a little. If it’s still very light, dial up the heat a bit. Once it’s light-golden, ease down the heat to continue cooking the rest of the fish.
“You’re basically cooking the fish 80 percent from the skin-side up,” Flint explains. When just the top 20 percent or so is still translucent, carefully flip the fish and cook it until it’s just shy of done; it’ll continue cooking a bit after you’ve removed it from the heat.
Flint does most of his seasoning with salt and acid rather than the conventional salt and pepper, for a lighter, brighter end result. But after this dish has absorbed the lactic, citric and wine-based acids that go into it, he finishes it with a hit of Espelette pepper. “We like the Espelette because it does provide heat, but there’s also a floral quality to it,” he says. If you can’t find Espelette, “Aleppo would work, or another chile pepper that is not overly spicy but does still have a floral quality.” And he prefers the fineness of ground pepper to larger, harder-to-control pepper flakes.
Although cayenne is a pantry staple you’ll likely have on hand, he warns that it is more aggressively hot and should be used sparingly if at all. “If you’re out of options and you have some cayenne, just use a very, very small amount.” It’s one of the clarion calls of wise cooks everywhere: “You can always add. You can’t subtract.”
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Chris Flint’s inspiration, read the companion article, "Branzino With Champagne," in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated sparkling wines in our Wine Ratings Search.
1. In a small bowl, combine crème fraîche, Greek yogurt and whole-milk yogurt. Season with salt to taste. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator.
2. In a small pot, combine wine, star anise, lemon zest and fennel seeds over medium heat. Reduce by half, 10 to 15 minutes. Add fennel wedges and 1/3 cup olive oil. Simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Cool in liquid and add 3/4 teaspoons salt, or to taste.
3. Season the skin side of the fillets with salt and let sit for about 15 minutes.
4. Coat a large, nonreactive saucepan with olive oil and heat over medium-high. Pat the fish fillets with paper towels to absorb any accumulated moisture. Place two fillets skin-side down and cook for approximately 3 minutes, until skin is crispy. Flip and cook for approximately 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm. Add more oil if needed, and repeat with the remaining two fillets.
5. Over low heat, warm the fennel mixture in its cooking liquid. Place 1 fillet and 4 warm fennel wedges on each dinner plate. Scatter about 12 fennel shavings over each fillet. Arrange fennel fronds and citrus segments on or around the fish. Drizzle with yogurt sauce (you’ll use about 1/4 cup total) and a few drops of oil, and finish with freshly ground Espelette pepper. Serves 4.