Tarbot has never been cheap, nor should it be. This ruling fish has always been highly regarded: its rich, gelatinous flesh has earned it the title of King of the Sea and there can be no better claimant to the throne. It evokes respect and I can remember several occasions in restaurants when it held the title. I once had a large steak of very fresh fish, which was simply poached and served 40 years ago with a hollandaise sauce in the venerable Sweetings in the City of London. The restaurant is still there and I notice tarbot is only charged £ 30, which makes it somewhat of a bargain.
The big Richard Corrigan gave me a similar piece, again simply poached, but this time accompanied by melted butter and freshly grated horseradish, an inspired combination that I then copied.
The most inventive tarbot dish I have ever had was at the three-star Guy Savoy in Paris. The fish was a section (a steak cut across the bone, usually after the fish is split in the middle), served at the table, neatly remove the central bone and replace with a poached egg, and lightly baste with olive oil. After devouring it, the head waiter removed the top, perforated portion of the large soup plate to reveal the poached fries of the fish floating in a fragrant sauce with some soft garlic cloves and slices of potato, accented by patches of egg yolk and olive oil that escaped from the upper room.
Likewise, I could describe the tarbot stuffed with lobster mousse and wrapped in pastries served by Michel Roux Jr. to celebrate Le Gavroche’s 40th birthday. But there is no place. Suffice it to say that I and a few other shameless guests went back several times for more.
The first two dishes demonstrate very well that tarbot does not have to be complicated. The fish is the thing and as long as it is not overcooked – the meat just needs to get away from the bone, but not without revealing a slight pinkness – it will be perfect with hollandaise or horseradish or the even simpler treatment presented here.
Steamed tarbot, winter tomatoes and new season olive oil
Unlike many fish, the larger the tarbot, the finer the flavor. Stay away from the cultivated stuff. The oil must be of the highest quality: it does not have to be Tuscan, but it helps. The winter tomatoes that come from Spain and Italy this time of year – varieties like Raf, Iberiko and Camorna – may not have the sweetness of summer tomatoes, but have an acidity and intensity that is an ideal accompaniment to fish.
Recipe for two
Remove stems and cut the tomatoes in half. Season each with a pinch of salt, a little ground pepper, a pinch of sugar and half a teaspoon of red wine vinegar (other vinegar will be good). Place on a tray with cutting edge facing up and bake in a cool oven (130C) for 30-40 minutes until they have dried out and concentrated their flavor.
Season the tarbot well with salt and black pepper 10 minutes before cooking. Dust the sides of the meat (those without skin) with the allspice and place the tarbot in a steamer for eight to 10 minutes. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the steaks: test them with a wooden pin – when cooked, the test pin slides through with only the bone resisting.
Peel a squash, grate it and squeeze the juice. Serve with the chopped tomatoes and generously toss the fish in the oil. Serve with purple sprouting broccoli wrapped in a little chopped garlic that is soft in olive oil.
White, of course, and that should be the thing of dreams. Great white burgundy goes well with the dish, as long as it still has freshness, vigor and absolutely no premature oxidation. However, my choice of desert island may be white Rhône. What about Beaucastel’s Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, about 10 years old? Of course ridiculously expensive, but a bargain next to Grand Cru Puligny Montrachet or Meursault.
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