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A Seafood Feast

A Seafood Feast
September 2011
Celebrating the season’s bounty at home with FIG chef Mike Lata

Ask James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata about the difference between cooking at home and at his renowned restaurant FIG, and his answer may surprise you. “There really isn’t one,” he says. “It’s all about sourcing the best ingredients possible and protecting their integrity.”
When Lata recently gathered friends for dinner at the home he shares with girlfriend Emilee Cleary, seafood—sustainable and mostly local—was the inspiration. “Right now I’m focused on sustainable seafood. It’s a big topic here that needs to be better represented.”

For the first of two seafood starters, Lata chose an indulgent, generously portioned tasting of American paddlefish caviar served on homemade potato chips with crème fraîche and chives. “I know this caviar is harvested sustainably,” he says, peeling open two big chilled containers of the glistening grey-black eggs. “It’s expensive, but there’s a lot of value in eating it at home. Indulging in substantial portions would be cost-prohibitive in a restaurant. Here, I can serve it for friends, and we can go at it with gusto. It’s fun to be able to enjoy it on a scale that redefines the experience.”

The second appetizer showcases South Carolina’s white shrimp. “I like to celebrate our local shrimp,” Lata says as he tucks a couple inside a beautiful Bibb lettuce leaf. “Poaching them properly is one of the best ways to preserve their delicate texture.” The fresh ocean flavor of the shrimp is complemented by the crunch of the lettuce and the velvety and bright bagnarotte—a sauce he fondly remembers from his time spent cooking and eating in sunny Nice. “It’s a classic for a reason,” Lata says. “It just works with seafood.”

First Course
Lata begins deftly carving chilled raw fillets of locally caught wahoo into cubes for a crudo that he’ll serve tonnato style. Once again, the importance of careful sourcing becomes clear. “Wahoo is a great fish, but it can dry out pretty quickly when cooked,” he explains. “So when you buy it fresh from a reputable fisherman and know how long it’s been out of the water, you can serve it raw.”

Serving the fish tonnato style is a stroke of inspiration that, like many of Lata’s carefully crafted dishes, is borne of Italian tradition. “This is inspired by the classic vitello tonnato dish,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful puréed sauce with tuna and anchovies that enhances the flavor of the wahoo.”

Thinly sliced celery hearts and leaves, anchovies, and a sprinkle of fleur de sel garnish the crudo and add that bright Lata touch. “The celery gives the crudo a fresh, astringent flavor and a nice contrast of texture,” Lata explains as he plates the last crudo to pass around.

Second Course
With the appetizers circulating, Lata heads back to the kitchen to crack some golden-yolked Sea Island farm eggs for a coddled egg dish that has been an evolving favorite at FIG. The eggs are added to cocottes filled with a sauce made from puréed caramelized onion and Carolina Gold rice. After they’re baked until barely set, he tops them with sautéed local stone crab, sweet corn, chanterelle mushrooms, and a parmesan foam. “The beauty is that you can change the topping seasonally,” says Lata. “It’s elegant yet surprisingly easy to do at home, and its creamy texture makes it a showstopper for guests.”

The main event—a locally caught grouper roasted whole in a salt crust—makes for a beautiful presentation. Lata fills the cavity of the fish with fragrant orange slices and sprigs of rosemary and thyme, then evenly covers it with a sealing mixture of egg whites, water, and kosher salt. Once cooked, he cracks open the now golden crust to reveal its steamy and intensely flavored ivory flesh. Simply topped with an herbaceous, jewel-green salsa verde of parsley, mustard, anchovies, and olive oil, the grouper is a revelation.

Alongside, the chef offers up a colorful platter of farro succotash. He sources the farro piccolo from South Carolina’s Anson Mills, the only grower of the heirloom Italian spelt wheat in the country. Lata tosses the nutty, toothsome grain with sautéed fresh field peas, butter beans, sliced baby zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. “We use farro from Anson Mills year-round,” Lata says. “It’s easy to adapt at home, too, because you can choose whatever vegetables are in season and serve it hot or at room temperature.”

When entertaining at home, Lata likes to keep dessert on the lighter side, and for this feast, it’s panna cotta with blueberry compote. “You need something sweet after dinner,” he offers, “but more often than not, everyone’s full. To keep things lively, we like to serve a light, refreshing dessert.”