Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #4: Cooking sea bass right is no day at the beach

Tony Mantuano

    The vacation is going great, thank you. I re-connected with an NU classmate I hadn't seen since college, got a first coat of paint on the front steps, dug the next book out of mothballs and started blowing off the dust. Though taking a week off does remind me why I coined the phrase, "If you're not the newspaper, you might as well be dead." Very quiet. I am enjoying revisiting these profiles on chefs, and hope you are too. At the time, it was a way to eat fancy meals I couldn't otherwise afford. This one came from a publicist, who was ballyhooing Mantuano's return after doing field research in Italy. I was trying to think of how to translate that into a story, and thus a meal at Spiaggia, and asked if I could watch him teaching his staff one of the recipes he plundered.
    Tony Mantuano was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2005. He now heads up the food program at The Joseph, a luxury hotel in Nashville.

     Tony Mantuano is worried about a potato.
     "We're doing Idahos and yellows," he says, standing before the curving grill line at Spiaggia, the chi-chi Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue. "I'm more concerned about the potatoes than the fish."
     It is the middle of the afternoon. The dining room, with its stunning view of North Michigan Avenue, is empty of customers. Mantuano, who is Spiaggia's executive chef, huddles with his top staffers, struggling to do something few of the tens of thousands of Chicagoans who haunt fancy restaurants ever pause to think about: add a new dish to the menu.
     Restaurants are like stage plays. They provide a backdrop for your life's dramas. That's the secret successful restaurateurs understand; you can eat good food at home. But to leap upon the stage, to enjoy that special, fleeting zone that is part private and part public and all glitter and elegance, you need to dine out.
     Like plays, most restaurants open quietly, run for a while, then disappear forever. A few go on to respectable, lengthy runs. And a very few—a handful—last so long they seem to go on, to steal the advertising line from Cats, "Now and Forever."
     To reach that coveted state of longevity, a restaurant, like a play, must refresh itself occasionally. New cast members must be brought in, new arrangements written. Spiaggia, which opened in 1984, has reached that age where restaurants either expire or become institutions. Hoping for the latter, last year it redecorated and brought back Mantuano, who was chef when it first opened, moving on in 1990 to tackle his own projects. Now he is back.
     "It's like returning to a child you helped in its infancy," he says.
     To inspire himself, Mantuano headed to Italy for two weeks at the end of October, seeking out new restaurants and old favorites, including a former haunt called Al Bersagliere, on the Mincio River in the Lombard town of Goito.
     There he was served fish wrapped in a delicate potato lattice. A dish that had an enigmatic sweet taste. A dish, he immediately realized, that would wow 'em back in Chicago.
     "We had prawns done similarly in Tuscany," says Mantuano. "It was sweet. That's what caught my attention. That subtle flavor made the dish jump up a notch. At first you don't recognize it."
     Even though Mantuano sat down with the chef, Mossimo Ferarri, and quizzed him about the dish—the sweetness turned out to come from chestnut honey—reproducing it back in Chicago is not as simple as it might appear. Which fish to use? Which potato? What kind of herbs?
     Each element poses its own problems. The Italian word Ferarri used for the fish was "ombrina," which translates out as "sea perch," a nearly generic term. There are 8,000 different types of perch.
     First Mantuano tries halibut. Then sea bass. Chef du cuisine Beth Partridge slices succulent filets off a shimmering silver and pink slab. Then they have to decide: one big filet or two small ones? They settle on one big filet: less trouble with drying out.
     Next problem, the potato. The lattice is easy enough to cut, using a metal kitchen gadget called a mandolin, sort of a Veg-O-matic on steroids. But how to prepare the potato so it is not too crisp, not too soggy but, to quote Goldilocks, "just right"? How to keep it from discoloring?
     They try blanching, try poaching.
     "The oil-poached potato," says sous chef Russ Elliot, gravely, in the tone a doorman might say, "The Queen of France." He hands Mantuano a thin sheet of yellow potato, sliced into a screen. Mantuano holds it on his fingertips and looks closely.
     "I don't think the yellows are going to cut it," says Partridge. "We're down to Idahos and yellows."
     Eventually the potato problem is solved by blanching in oil. Then on to the puree.
     "I'm not liking the puree," says Elliot. "I think we're better with chopped herbs. This is the black truffle sauce."
     They stand around. Different plates are passed, the three chefs picking up forks from a row of clean ones.
     While not exactly tense, there is a certain air of struggle to refining the dish. Mantuano spikes a version of the herb puree.
     "What's the problem?" asks Elliot. "Are you judging by flavor?"
     "Yeah, imagine that," says Mantuano, testily. "I'm assuming that's what most of the guests will do."
     Finally, the fish is right. The potato is right. The honey is right. The herbs are right. But something's still not right. More tasting. Mantuano unholsters the chef's secret weapon: salt—fancy French salt, we hasten to add, but salt nonetheless. Everyone tastes again.
     "I really think it benefits from the fleur de sal," says Mantuano. "Like salt on French fries."
     "Ta dah," says Partridge, indulging in a bit of culinary punning. "It's a weiner."
     The next week, Branzino in rete di patate -- "bass in a potato net" -- debuts on the Spiaggia menu at $35 a pop. The crowd goes wild.
     "It's really a big seller," says Mantuano.
      —Originally published December 17, 2000

1 comment:

  1. I find it remarkable that Neil is able to conger up interest in matters I would otherwise find dull, unnecessary, and in this case decadent in the worse sense of the word. My idea of a piscatory delight is to thaw out a frozen salmon fillet, drench it with pepper and sauté it in a bit of olive oil to be accompanied by a nuked baking potato mashed up with an assortment of Birds Eye vegetables. Nonetheless, I have been fascinated by the descriptions of processes and even obsessions that ordinarily I would reject out of hand. Thanks, Neil, for subverting my life style.



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