salt-crusted sea bass
If you’ve ever been to one of Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred restaurants, you already know that there’s a lot on the menu that’s going to wow you. As someone who has never experienced the magic, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my Napa Valley splurge. I wasn’t able to get a reservation at The French Laundry, but I was thrilled to score a table at Ad Hoc, another of Keller’s famed eateries.
From the moment I walked under the blue awning and through the door of the Yountville establishment, my senses were on high alert. The interior has a comfortable, almost homey appeal that was casual, but still felt special.
We were lucky enough to hit the restaurant on fried chicken Monday, so the aromas wafting through the air had my stomach growling before I even sat at the table. My dining companion was ready to order as soon as he got one whiff of the air.
But me? I knew that I wanted to try Keller’s iconic salt-crusted sea bass. I swear, as soon as it hit the table, I actually swooned.
Part of the magic
There’s a theatrical element to serving something that’s been baked in a salt crust. Part of the magic is in cracking the crust open, pushing the skin aside and making your way to the tender, flavorful fillets as herbaceous steam gently floats through the air. Every bite made my taste buds dance with delicate notes of citrus, herbs and fresh, unctuous fish.
Although the idea of wrapping food of any kind in a thick crust of salt before popping it in the oven sounds a little wild, it’s a tried and true process that’s been around since ancient China. I had never experienced anything like it. The added tenderness and moisture that infused the fish with the flavors paired with it was nothing short of spectacular.
It wasn’t the only thing served at the table that night, but it was the first one I wanted to recreate after I got home. Like me, my friends and family had never experienced salt-crusted anything and I wanted to share a taste of my trip to Napa with the people I loved most. So, in addition to bringing home a few bottles of vino, I started planning my dinner party.
I quickly discovered that experimenting with a new process is part of the fun. Whole fish and beef roasts aren’t the only foods that benefit from this treatment. Imagine pulling a roasting pan out of the oven, the hard, golden crust catching the light in your kitchen. Grab a serving spoon and fork or a kitchen mallet to crack the crust open and reveal the fragrant interior. What’s inside? It could be anything from potatoes and herbs to firm vegetables to whole chickens. Beef tenderloin and other roasts cook up beautifully without drying out.
It also gives cooks like me a chance to create a dramatic tableside moment. I decided to try my hand at a little flambé to take the experience up a notch for my guests. I splashed a bit of Grappa on top and set it ablaze. Once the oohs and aahs of my guests died down and the flames subsided, I cracked the crust and started serving the silky, delicately-flavored fish.
If you’re looking for a new way to create moist, flavorful dishes, consider trying your hand at baking in a salt crust. Together with whatever seasonings and spices you choose to season it with, the food steams as it cooks, infusing it with moisture and allowing the flavors to penetrate without being too overpowering. Plus, your guests will never fail to be wowed by your efforts.