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Summer Grilling: Sotto's Whole Grilled Orata

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Living in Southern California means we can pretty much fire the grill up any day of the year, but since summer has unofficially started, and Father's Day is right around the corner, grilling is really on everyone's minds. But it doesn't always have to be steak, chicken or ribs--instead, try grilling a whole fish.

For this, we turn to chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack from Sotto, a new hidden Italian gem near Century City. After stints at Valentino (Samson) and Costa Mesa's Pizzeria Ortica (both), the two have a simple food philosophy: Start with quality ingredients and have a light touch so each one sings. They make all of their pastas by hand; meats are roasted, braised or grilled (definitely go for the Sunday porcetto roast); and vegetables are whatever is fresh and in season. Each dish is rustic and unpretentious--exactly the way we love to eat right now.

The whole grilled orata, also known as daurade or black sea bream, is another perfect example of their cooking style. The two were inspired by their visits to seaside towns in Southern Italy, where you'd find the dish in homes and restaurants. At Sotto, they stuff the fish with lemon and herbs and grill it for a few minutes per side. It comes to the table fragrant and moist, with just a hint of char. For even more flavor, salmoriglio, a lemony Sicilian seasoning, is brushed on just before serving.

At home, don't be intimidated by cooking a whole fish: As long as the fishmonger removes all the bones, except for the head, tail and backbone, there's nothing to it. At Sotto, the orata is served with a wonderful fennel and currant salad, but it goes nicely with any vegetable. Here's the recipe:

Whole Grilled Orata
Recipe adapted from Steve Samson and Zach Pollack
Makes 3 to 4 servings

For the salmoriglio:
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon chopped marjoram

For the fish:
2 whole orata, about 1 to 2 pounds each
Salt and pepper
6 thin slices of lemon
2 tablespoons toasted breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
¼ teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
¼ cup wild arugula leaves
Olive oil

1. For the salmoriglio: In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, parsley and marjoram and set aside.

2. For the fish: Heat grill to medium-high. With a pair of kitchen scissors, trim dorsal fin then clip off pectoral fins on each fish, and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Open the fish and add lemon slices, breadcrumbs, parsley, marjoram and arugula. Brush with a little olive oil and tie each fish with twine (optional).

3. Oil the hot part of the grill, and place the orata skin-side down. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes per side. The flesh should be firm to the touch (you can open up the fish to check). Take the fish off of the grill and brush with salmoriglio, sprinkle with sea salt and serve. If you don't want to serve it whole, fillet the fish by first cutting along the top and bottom edges and just below the head. Lift off top fillet and place on serving dish. Remove skeleton, head and tail. Transfer bottom fillet to platter.

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