We became very good friends during our early hotel career days at the Mayfair Regent Hotel in Chicago in the late eighties. I was the Maitre D' at Le Ciel Bleu restaurant, and my friend, Suzanne Heiniger, a Swiss hotel intern, assisted me at the podium. We religiously went out every Tuesday evening for a year - a different restaurant each week; from a hole-in-the wall in Bucktown to fine dining temples in the Gold Coast. Travel and food connected us. So when her invitation to her wedding at the elegant Hotel Byblos in Fuengirola, Spain, arrived a few years ago, I knew that it was an event I couldn't miss.
Suzanne and Urs, her husband, hosted a welcome reception and dinner at a quaint seaside restaurant in Torreblanca for our first night. The highlight of the dinner is when the manager and the server paraded the Lubina a la Sal by our table. It was the most magnificent display of simple food done very well. The manager cracked the salt crust as if to signal the guests to gather around the prize. The salt crust cracked open like the shell of a hard boiled egg with each whack. The fish was then served with fresh lemon and Spanish olive oil. It was the most succulent fish I ever tasted, especially with the aroma of the sea and the sound of the waves crashing in the background. I swore to myself that evening that I will make the salt crusted fish a part of my culinary repertoire.
While I cannot replicate that moment of mediterranean delight in the middle of my kitchen in Grand Rapids, the following recipe from Mario Batali's "Molto Italiano" cookbook comes close to the final product.
WHOLE FISH BAKED IN A SALT CRUST
Makes 6 servings:
4 pounds (or more) Coarse Sea Salt or Kosher Salt
2 large Egg Whites*
One 4- to 5- pound Sea Bass, Salmon or Snapper, cleaned and scaled
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for drizzling
1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees
2. Pour the salt into a large bowl, add the egg whites, and mix vigorously until the salt is evenly moistened. Spread one third of the salt mixture over the bottom of a large rectangular or oval baking dish big enough to hold the fish. Place the fish on top, then cover it with the rest of the salt mixture, making sure it is completely covered.
3. Place the baking dish in the oven and reduce the heat to 400 degrees. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish - the rule of thumb is 10 minutes for every inch of thickness at the widest part. Remove from the oven.
4. Crack the crust open at the table with the handle of a knife or a small hammer (what the heck - use a huge mallet for show), and lift it off. Fillet the fish, and serve with lemon wedges, drizzling olive oil over the flesh.
* Former JW Marriott Grand Rapids sous chef, Frank Gort, now with the JW Marriott San Francisco, showed me the trick to determine the best ratio of salt to egg whites. While helping the kitchen prepare for the JW New Year's Eve 80's bash, he told me to use enough egg whites until I can form a snowball with the salt. To follow chef Frank's guideline means using more than the 2 egg whites noted in this recipe.