It’s a simple, if dramatic, presentation: A butterflied whole branzino is marinated with turmeric, garlic and spicy Thai chiles just long enough for the flavors to infuse, 30 minutes or so. The fish is then quickly grilled until the skin is burnished and blistered and the interior is barely cooked through, and plated under an assortment of fragrant fresh herb sprigs — mint, dill, laksa leaf — and lime wedges. You could butterfly the fish yourself, or simply have your fishmonger do this for you at the market so it’s ready to go.
Reader Patty Richardson still remembers the birthday dinner she had at Cassia, Bryant Ng’s Vietnamese French restaurant in Santa Monica, and currently No. 7 on Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list. The dish was “the very best birthday dinner ever,” she wrote.
“It’s a really simple recipe with few ingredients, and that’s the idea,” Ng told us in an email. Ng first had the fish in Vietnam, cooked by a chef friend. “He broiled the dish in the oven; however, we grill the fish at Cassia over wood and charcoal to give it a bit of that smoky flavor.” The drizzle of olive oil adds fresh fruity, grassy notes, and the scattering of fresh herbs allows each bite to be a new experience. Ng was happy to share the recipe, and we wish you many more happy birthdays, Patty.
50 minutes. Serves 1 to 2
1 teaspoon (3 grams) turmeric powder
1 scant tablespoon (10 grams) fish sauce
5 to 6 large cloves (32 grams) garlic
10 to 12 (15 grams) Thai chiles, stemmed
Scant 1/2 cup (100 grams) canola oil
1 1/4-1 1/2 pound sea bass, vertebrae and bones removed; head and tail intact; butterflied
Fresh herbs, such as cilantro, mint, dill, and laksa leaf sprigs, for garnish
Lime wedges, for serving
Olive oil, good quality for finishing
1. Using a blender, puree the turmeric, fish sauce, garlic, chiles and oil. Brush the marinade onto the butterflied fish and set aside for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to infuse the fish.
2. Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat until hot.
Grill the fish, skin-side down, until the skin is brown and blistered, about 4 minutes. Carefully flip the fish over and continue to cook until the flesh is barely cooked through, an additional 2 to 4 minutes.
3. Plate the fish, garnishing with the herb sprigs and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately, with lime wedges on the side.
Note: Adapted from Cassia Restaurant in Santa Monica.
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