This is a Mediterranean showpiece dish found in elegant fish restaurants in Istanbul, Italy, and London. Most memorably, I’ve had it at Korfez, a lovely place on the Bosphorus’ Asian shore that one gets to by boarding the restaurant’s launch from Bebek pier. Dinner is waterside, just under the towering Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, occasionally, punctuated by a passing oil tanker, fully laden from Odessa. Curiously, at night-time, one doesn’t actually see the tanker: it’s the surreal and visceral, felt rather than heard, rumble in the room, and the sudden absence of lights from the opposite shore, as the tanker occludes them.
Back to dinner: the fish looks impressive in its salt crust, and cooks beautifully, the salt locking in the moisture and (if successful) only gently penetrating the fish to accentuate its delicate flavour.
Most recipes specify sea bass, but I had very decent gilt-head bream (albeit farmed) at the fishmongers, for £7, so not exorbitant. See Rowley Leigh’s article on the topic, but I agree a nice bream probably is better than the average mass-farmed sea bass one sees everywhere. Ask your man to gut the fish, but probably not scale it; I’ve seen recipes that call for scaling and others that don’t, and the result was very good in both cases, but the scaled fish was much saltier. Make sure you have about 1kg of coarse marine salt available.
I don’t have one, but you should have a fish roasting pan for this to work properly. Also a fish slice to handle the beast without breaking up.
Preheat oven at 200C.
Lay a bed of salt, 1-2cm deep in the pan. Place the fish carefully on the bed. Cover the fish with salt, so no bits are exposed (hence a big pan is helpful – in my case, the head stuck out and so there was a break in the salt crust). Drizzle on a little water and pat the salt down, this helps bind the salt crust.
Put in the oven for 20-25 minutes depending on the size of your fish.
Bring it out, and gently tap the salt crust with a knife, which should come off in big chunks. Once the top-side of the fish is exposed, gently lift onto a cutting board or platter. Gently cut back the skin, which should take any stray salt pieces with it. Then lift out the filets and place on warmed serving plates.
Serve with lemon. I’m not sure pepper or EVOO helps, as the fish + salt has such a great flavour, that olive oil really dominates (or it might be my crap/strong/green Cypriot oil).
The fish doesn’t really need any seasoning before cooking. Nevertheless various recipes suggest stuffing with thyme or rosemary. I put in lemon slices and (dried) rosemary, and found the effect unconvincing.
Various recipes suggest mixing the coarse salt with a binder, such as egg-whites, which perhaps creates a better crust. Not having tried it, I have no view.