One of the most important post-war restaurant fashions in Britain started at Mario and Franco’s Trattoria on the corner of Dean Street and Romilly Street in the late 1960s. Up until this point Italian restaurants had generally been rather small, dowdy places, much given to check tablecloths and straw-clad Chianti bottles. Thousands of Italians virtually ran the entire catering establishment all over the country. What they hadn’t brought to any places run by them was any sense of the almost innate style and taste so often encountered in Italy. The Trat changed all that, its stylish modern decor fitted the mood of the times, and the food was equally new to London with simple grills, authentic pasta dishes, lively antipasti and Pollo Sopresa (a covert re-working of Chicken Kiev). About the only concession to the old-style ristorante was that the waiters were allowed to keep their enormous pepper mills.
Perhaps the single biggest step forward made at the Trat was to persuade the British that there were other fish worth eating besides turbot, sole and salmon. Sea bream, red and grey mullet, squid, swordfish, tuna, clams and particularly sea bass were introduced to trendy Londoners. Many of these fish, generally simply roasted or grilled, were also served whole, something not deemed acceptable up until then by restaurant clients (the waiters would of course fillet your fish with great gusto if asked). I must confess that the bass served to me in 1971, literally baked in a paper bag, was
Preheat your oven to its maximum. Cut an oval of paper, using the full width of the roll and longer than the fish by
Although the fish will have been cleaned by your supplier there must be no trace of blood in the body cavity. If it is still a bit messy in there, take an old toothbrush and
Squeeze the spinach out and dress with the lemon juice,
Fold the oval of paper in half along its long axis. Lightly oil an area approximately the size of the fish to one side of the fold and season this greased zone. Place the fish on this area, oil and season the top skin and fold the free half of the paper over. You now have something that looks like a large paper Cornish pasty which needs sealing up. Make a 45-degree fold at one end of the paper, then a series of smaller and more acute angled folds until the fish is enclosed. The two ends can be twisted into little handles if you wish. All the folds must be firmly pressed.
Slide the parcel on to a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. The paper will have browned and puffed up by this point. Remove from the oven and carefully slide on to a heated serving platter.
Take to the table and cut open the top. Now the difficult bit: take hold of the folded edge of the parcel near the centre and tip it over, pulling gently towards you as it turns. The fish will fall gracefully out of the bag on to the platter, exposing the underside which will have browned a little due to its contact with the oiled paper. It is probably best to not fillet the fish, simply cut pieces off as you go. Sea bass have some rather good meat on their heads if you are feeling brave enough - particularly two cheeks and an especially good nugget on the top.
In the restaurant we serve a chunk of bass fillet on a bed of spinach in this way, which is probably easier but in no way as spectacular. Other fish can be cooked similarly, such as sea breams of various sorts, trout, whiting and salmon steaks. The spinach can be successfully replaced by blanched and chopped leeks or a mixture of precooked vegetables.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.