Delicate, buttery flounder from another era
UNTIL the culinary revolution began in the 1970s, there were two types of fine-dining restaurants in San Francisco. One served a kind of cuisine called Continental. Vaguely European and intentionally fancy, the food arrived from the kitchen beneath polished silver domes, accompanied by rich sauces in silver sauce boats, and occasionally by tableside theatrics performed by waiters in red dinner jackets.
The other, a bit more boisterous and bustling, was the traditional bistrolike San Francisco fish house, and there were lots of them, some predating the 1906 earthquake. The menus in these places didn’t vary much, and all boasted fresh local seafood. There were, of course, the obligatory shrimp cocktail and shrimp Louie, oysters on the half-shell and little pots of steamed clams.
Perpetually available was a so-called captain’s platter, which contained an assortment of deep-fried fish and shellfish.
In season, diners ordered Dungeness crab and Pacific salmon and halibut steaks.
But any fish palace worth its sea salt also offered the three types of sole native to the region.
Rex were served bone-in, but the prized, meaty, delicate petrale sole was always a boneless fillet. The best version of it was called Dore (pronounced doh-RAY), dipped in an eggy batter and tossed on a well-oiled hot griddle, then floated in a buttery sauce.
For the most part, those establishments have disappeared, but a few stalwarts remain and are popular with locals and tourists.
When I lived on the West Coast, an occasional meal in one of them provided a glimpse of a previous era, with decor to match: mahogany fixtures, brass rails, dark velvet curtains and etched mirrors, along with no-nonsense plates and cutlery. There was never a young waiter on the staff. Eating there was like stepping into a fabled past.
I confess a certain weakness still for that savoury egg-cloaked sole. Here in New York the other day, my favourite fishmonger had small flounder fillets, so I determined to prepare them in that nearly prehistoric manner. The technique is simple: Dust the fish in flour and submerge it in a mixture of beaten egg and milk. When the fillets are pan-fried, they emerge moist, delicate and golden.
Although the fish then really needs only butter and lemon, my slight variation was to add a handful of finely minced mild green spring garlic to the sauce. It is so abundant at the farmers’ market right now, I seem to be putting a little in just about everything.
Egg batter pan-fried flounder with green garlic Time: About 20 minutes Ingredients: 1 1/2 pounds boneless flounder or sole fillets, preferably four 6-ounce pieces Salt and pepper 2 large eggs 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup all-purpose flour for dredging Mild olive oil or vegetable oil for frying 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/3 cup finely chopped green garlic, both white part and tender green stalks Juice of 1/2 lemon 3 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley Lemon wedges.
Method: 1. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper. Make the egg batter by whisking together the eggs and milk in a shallow bowl, along with a pinch of salt.
2. Put the flour on a plate.
Coat each fillet lightly on both sides, then submerge the fish in the egg batter.
(This can be done up to 30 minutes ahead.) 3. Pour about 1/4-inch oil in a wide skillet over medium- high heat. When the oil looks wavy, lift the fish from the egg batter one piece at a time, allowing excess batter to drip off.
(Discard remaining batter.) Carefully lay each fillet in the pan and let gently fry until golden, about two minutes per side. Remove and blot briefly on paper towels, then transfer to a warmed serving platter.
4. Pour off any remaining oil and return the pan to the heat. Melt the butter in the pan and add the green garlic, and a little salt and pepper. Let cook without browning for about one minute, then add the lemon juice.
5. Spoon the green garlic butter over the fish.
Sprinkle with parsley, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.