The Best Turbot Is Grilled in a Basket and Smothered with Olive Oil
“The advantage of cooking the turbot whole in a basket is that the skin keeps all the juices inside,” explains Damian Surowiec, chef at Lurra, a London restaurant recreating traditional Basque cuisine.
All photos by Jake Lewis.
Long before I visit Lurra, I know about its beef.
The Basque-inspired London restaurant only opened in the summer but is already known for its eight-year-old-retired dairy cows (or vaca vieja) and Galician blonde cattle (rubia gallega in Spanish), also served at their sister restaurant Donostia. So it seemed certain that their signature dish would be a slab of bovine flesh.
Wrong. It's actually whole-grilled turbot with Txakoli dressing, a dish symbolic of the Spanish region's way of life. Seems a lot for a fish to bear, but it carries it off pretty well.
The secret to Lurra's turbot is in the grill. Not just any grill, but a tailor-made, super-wide Robata fueled by oak coal and vine wood imported from the Basque country, and heated up to 300 degrees Celsius to replicate the subtly smoked tastes emanating from the region's erretegias or "grill houses." It was a visit to Restaurante Elkano, a 50-year-old erretegia in the tiny fishing village of Getaria that sparked owner Nemanja Borjanovik's fascination with the grill.
"When we went there and tried the turbot, it was similar to our experience with the beef, in that it changed our perception of food," explains Borjanovik. "We knew there was more to it than get it out the sea and throw it on the grill, so we spoke to the owners and asked if our chef Damian could spend some time with them."
Damian Surowiec, executive chef of both restaurants is similarly besotted with all things Basque. His face glows as he divulges his experiences of the region and reveals (almost) all the elements of this supremely succulent dish.
"We cook the turbot whole, in a basket," he says. "The advantage of that is that the skin keeps all the juices inside and as it's done slowly over charcoal, in the way that local fisherman have been cooking their catch for centuries. It gets extra flavour from the woods too."
Naturally, the fish itself is also key.
"Freshness is the best 'seasoning' for fish," adds Surowiec. "Some of the fish arriving at Elkano were still flapping about. All the fish we use here is wild and you can tell whereas if you were to blind taste farmed turbot, you wouldn't even be able to work out what fish it is."
Prior to hitting the grill, the turbot is sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and basted in Txakoli dressing, a close to magical concoction based on Elkano's fabled original.
"Every morning when I was there, it just appeared in the kitchen," remembers Surowiec. "I asked what was in it but even the head chef didn't know. It was invented by Pedro, the first owner of the restaurant, and since he passed away, it's been made by his son, Aitor."
Surowiec is also cautious about revealing his recipe, sharing only that it contains Txakoli wine (a light and fizzy Basque white), muscatel vinegar, and arbequina olive oil. He bastes the turbot liberally, places it in its basket, and then over the coals it goes. In Spain, skill with the grill is ingrained by centuries of tradition. Handily, Surowiec has a Galician chef working alongside him to man his.
"For this kind of fish, you need experience. Enrique can feel it and see it," he says. "For example, when the fish is dry, or lean, you start to get big bubbles on the skin and that's how you can tell it's best not to grill them at that time of year, so we go for other kinds of fish. It's all about working with nature."
The Robata exudes a delicate, vine-infused smoke as the fish slowly cooks. As we wait the requisite 15 or so minutes, Surowiec tells me again why the Basque way with sea produce is so exceptional.
"They have so much understanding of how to eat fish. You show respect to the animal by eating it whole," he enthuses. "You can experience a variety of meats in each turbot as the white side has a different texture and flavour to the side which faces the sand, which is firmer and tastier, in my opinion."
Removed from the grill, the turbot gleams with juices amidst touches of caramelisation. Surowiec carefully removes its spine, also the time to ensure that it is cooked to perfection, which here means slightly underdone.
"That's how you get the best flavour from it," Surowiec explains. "At Elkano, the fish was served raw. We're not doing it to that extent, just keeping it pink."
Once deboned, the fish is coated profusely with more Txakoli sauce, which reveals a hidden power as it combines with the turbot's juices to form an emulsion, or pil-pil, to use the Spanish term.
Finally, it's time to tuck in and, with proper guidance, we set about making the most of the creature. First, the white fillet, which immediately causes a huge smile to spread across my face. Imbued with that gentle smoke and hint of wine, it tastes like no other fish I've had. Moreish to a fault.
Next, we gleefully suck the blackened fins of their tender meat before—at Enrique's instigation ("For me it's the best bit, like a fish crisp")—we crunch them down too. The thicker, more unctuous underside of the fish is then trialled, before the primest cut, a.k.a., the turbot's rich little cheeks. Damn.
Obviously we keep scoffing. Purely in the interest of respecting nature and honouring the Basque region, not gluttony. Promise.
All photos by Jake Lewis.