On a recent mid-week grocery run to Marukai Market in Gardena, Chef Daniel Roberts of Café del Rey surveyed the seafood counter and, looking at a whole red snapper, he ticked off a general checklist of telltale signs of freshness. "The eyes are nice and clear. It doesn't look slimy. Got some nice teeth going on there."
Roberts also looked out for shade and vibrancy of color: a dark pink piece from a tuna tells him that it was probably sliced from the top of the fish's eye; grayness on a fish can indicate that it has been thawed and sitting out for a while. He recommended asking if a piece of fish has been thawed: one can tell if fish has been sitting in water overlong by looking at the texture of the meat to see if it appears broken down and opaque.
"Even if it's a frozen product, it doesn't mean it's a bad product. You have to expect for some to be frozen. It's about the quality of how [the product] is handled," he said.
Years of experience in handling seafood at restaurants on both coasts honed in him an ability to not only gauge the condition of the animal, and the cut, by glance, but its likely provenance as well. One early training ground was a Queens seafood restaurant with three walk-ins just for fish, where Roberts would clean fresh calamari by the caseload. "That was brutal - just the worst prep job ever," he recalled.
Since moving to California in 1999, he has followed up with stints at restaurants like Baleen and Asia de Cuba. The sushi bar at the latter taught him more about breaking down a fish and maximizing the use of each part.
"My mother's family is Italian and my father's side is Spanish, French, [and] Irish. I grew up around a lot of different types of food and making them from scratch. While on the east coast, I worked [at] a bunch of different restaurants to get a feel for different cuisines. I've carried that throughout my career," he said.
It is the house-cured salmon that has become his signature, remaining in some incarnation or another even as the menu changes with each season. Roberts learned the basics of curing -- dress a piece of salmon with seasoning, vegetables and herbs on top, perhaps some form of alcohol, and follow with salt and sugar -- from an early career experience making gravlax. For Café del Rey, he created a recipe to fit with the restaurant's California-Mediterranean approach.
To cure the salmon each week, Roberts begins by covering a piece of Scottish salmon with lemon and orange zest, not their juices, to give the salmon a citrus profile without cooking the fish. He follows that with a medley of fennel, onion, and basil. As he explained, the vegetables act as both an aromatic element and a protective barrier to the potent mix of salt, sugar, peppercorns, and coriander seeds.
The vegetables are particularly key in preventing the salmon from becoming jerky, as salt acts as an astringent. Between the vegetables and salt-sugar cure, he pours in vodka, choosing to use it for the clean taste. The fish is then tightly wrapped, pressed down with heavy cans, and refrigerated for three days.
Curing salmon may seem intimidating for some, and as Roberts admits, "I've made jerky plenty of times, because I did it wrong. You learn."
The house-cured salmon currently appears in two versions -- one of which comes with artichoke chips, crème fraiche, micro greens, and a shot of basil vodka limoncello. During the winter, it is served with buckwheat blini and caviar.
"If I ever wrote a cookbook, it would be something like 'if you don't have this, you can use this'. Home cooks have to realize there are options. Don't feel locked in that this is all you have to work with. Improvise," he said. "You should always read a cookbook or look at a recipe and let that be a launching pad for your own interpretation."
House-Cured Scottish Salmon
Courtesy of Daniel Roberts
14-lb fresh Scottish salmon, cleaned
3 oranges, to be zested
5 lemons, to be zested
1 fennel bulb, shaved (use sharp knife or mandolin)
1 Spanish onion, shaved (use sharp knife or mandolin)
4 oz basil
8 oz vodka
32 oz Salt & Sugar Mix
Salt & Sugar Mix:
3 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup pink peppercorns
½ cup coriander seeds
Mix to combine.
Lay the salmon skin-side down in two cheese cloths in a wide pan with at least 1-inch sides. Zest lemon and orange over the flesh of the salmon. Tear and crush basil with fingers and sprinkle over the flesh.
Spread the shaved fennel and onion evenly over the salmon flesh. Pour the vodka over the salmon, and spread the salt & sugar mix over it, making sure to not expose the salmon flesh to the salt and sugar.
Wrap tightly in cheese cloth and plastic wrap, and lay back in the pan. Place a second pan over the wrapped fish and add 15 pounds of weight evenly.
Cure for three days.
Wash with soft running water and pat dry before eating.
Cafe del Rey
4451 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey, 310-823-6395