16 April 2009

Recipes of the Lost City: Braised Striped Bass Pavillon

Le Pavillon was the first restaurant to bring haute French cuisine to Manhattan after World War II, and sparked a culinary revolution in the city that really hasn't ceased since (though heavy French food is no longer its focus). It was on 55th opposite the St. Regis. The place was overseen by the autocratic Henri Soule, and patronized by everyone from Presidents to high society to Hollywood royalty. Soule (that's him above, at the right), a Frenchman who settled in New York just before the war, was the most famous restaurant in the metropolis, and he knew it, treating almost everyone, from chef to waiter to guest, with barely disguised disdain.

Jacques Pepin was hired there in 1959 (and eventually led a labor revolt that temporarily led to the closing of the restaurant), and he included a Le Pavillon recipe in his memoir "The Apprentice." Here it is. It may seem a bit daunting at first glance, but the ingredients are all easily acquired, and the instructions, while detailed, are quite simple. I'm betting this was one of the most straightforward things served at La Pavillon.

Braised Striped Bass Pavillon

1 striped bass, gutted, with head on (about three pounds)
2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1 cup dry, fruity white wine (Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

Preheat the over to 400 degrees. Place the fish in a gratin dish or stainless steel baking dish that is narrow enough to prevent the garnishes and the wine from spreading out too much. Sprinkle with the mushrooms, shallots, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, olive oil, thyme, bay leaves, and wine. Cover tightly with piece of aluminum foil so the fish will cook in its own steam.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. Check by inserting the point of a small knife into the flesh. It should be tender, and the flesh should separate from the central bone when pierced with the knife. Reduce the hear to 150 degrees. Using a large spatula, transfer the whole fish to an overproof serving platter, and set aside in the warm oven while you complete the recipe.

Pour the fish's cooking juices and vegetable solids into a small saucepan, and discard the bay leaves. You should have 3/4 to 1 cup of liquid; cook down the liquid or add water to adjust the yield to this amount. Bring to a boil on top of the stove, and add the butter spoonful by spoonful, incorporating each piece into the mixture with a whisk before you add another. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add the lemon juice, chives, and additional salt and pepper to taste.

At serving time, pull or scrape off the skin on top of the fish with a small paring knife. Coat the fish with the sauce, and sprinkle the chives on top.

Previous Recipes of the Lost City

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