Chef Orel Kimchi glanced at the fresh sea bream, a long swath of shiny silver scales, and hefted it in his hand before sticking it in a pink plastic bag, along with a second sea bream, also thick and silvery, heads and tails firmly in place.
“We’ve got what we need,” he said. “Time to head back.”
It was a few days before the start of Open Restaurants, a four-day event that begins Wednesday, celebrating chefs and their kitchens by opening those sacred spaces to the public.
Kimchi, the head chef at Popina, which means restaurant in Latin, had brought a group of journalists to the Carmel Market to show us where to buy the best fish, meat and produce. (The restaurant usually gets its fish delivered, but Kimchi’s staff heads to the market when preparing raw fish for ceviche or tartar.) Now we were returning to his restaurant, located at the entrance to the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, where he was going to demonstrate five ways to prepare sea bream fillets.
Standing behind his stainless steel counters, cutting boards and Japanese knives at the ready, we gathered around, peering at the containers of fresh herbs and vegetables. We were more onlookers than participants, but as a group of foodies, it was fun having this kind of proximity to the action.
He unrolled his knife bag, showing off the collection that shows his “addiction” for the implements.
There was the flexible, bendable knife for fish, best for sliding under a fish’s slippery skin in order to fillet it. For vegetables, the knife needs to be stiff and sturdy; for meat, sharp and pointed at the end. But Kimchi’s favorite is a typical simple, cheap knife found in any housewares store; small, with a plastic handle and a sharp, serrated edge.
“It’s NIS 20 [under $6], and it’s my favorite,” he said, laughing.
The sea bream was already in place on a large, wide plastic cutting board on the counter. Kimchi lifted its cheek, showing a fleshy yellow line that signifies the freshness of the fish. Ditto for the eye, he said, which should shine. If the eye appears white, that means it’s been sitting around for too long. Sea bream is a local fish, caught in the nearby Mediterranean, and usually sold at the market the same day.
“If the fish is shiny, it’s fresh,” he said. “If it has a fishy smell, that’s actually not good. A fresh fish should smell like an ocean; put your nose to the fish, and inhale.”
Kimchi is not yet 30, but he’s already developing the manner of a master chef who will be spending as much time talking and demonstrating as cooking. He wiped down the fish with a paper towel, making sure it was dry so that the knife wouldn’t slip when making its first cut next to the cheek. His partner, Tzahi Ovadia, like Kimchi a graduate of the Tadmor cooking school, stood by his side, acting as sous chef and general sidekick.
“You can use any white-fleshed fish if you can’t find sea bream,” said Ovadia. “Grouper would work; so would sea bass or gray mullet, that’s what we call bouri around here. But not halibut, it’s too soft and should only be served crispy.”
Popina isn’t Ovadia’s first restaurant. He opened one in Johannesburg and spent five years between there and New York before returning to Israel. Kimchi worked in Paris and Spain — where he won the San Pellegrino “Best Chef Under 30″ title — before making his way back to Tel Aviv, where the two chefs opened Popina just over a year ago.
The restaurant specializes in cooking techniques, from curing, steaming and baking to searing and slow cooking. Besides meat and poultry, they fillet around five or six fish of this size each day, in addition to the salmon, grouper, sole, lobster, shrimp, mussels and crabs offered on the menu. The oysters, mussels, salmon, halibut and tuna aren’t local, but the rest is caught nearby, including some of the lobsters, which can only be sold if they’re accidentally caught in the net.
A fish of this size lasts for four days of menus if roasted or cooked, said Kimchi. Given the weight of this specimen, its meat won’t be too rough and can also be served raw the day it’s purchased.
First up was Gin and Tonic Tartar, a piscine interpretation of Kimchi’s favorite cocktail. After slicing off a section of the fish, he cut it into cubes, tossing it in a bowl with minced shallots, chives, salt and pepper, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. As he tossed the mixture, Kimchi talked about his favorite olive oil, which comes in the final bottles of the season when the oil is darker and more powerful than the “clean” olive oil at the start of the season. He added lemon zest to the fish mixture, remarking that like an aged balsamic vinegar, it adds a different taste than lemon juice, hitting the back of the mouth and not just the front of the tongue and offering a deep, rich flavor.
After tossing the fish with the dressing, Kimchi placed servings on each plate and then added gin and tonic cubes, made of wasabi, agar agar, gin and tonic and more lemon zest. He topped them with a coulis of basil, followed by foamed cucumber water (press cucumber in water, and then foam the water with a stick blender) and garnished with micro basil leaves.
Sounds complicated? It was more labor-intensive than the average fish preparation as it included touches of molecular gastronomy, a method of scientifically examining what happens to food when cooked — not always easy to pull together for a regular Monday night dinner. Kimchi did mention that any of the extra dressings could be left out, but recommended the gin and tonic cubes and the foamed cucumber water, which adds a fun touch to the plated dish.
The next preparation was less time-consuming, as Kimchi steamed chunks of sea drum drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper for six minutes in a rice steamer. He placed them on baking paper but commented that cabbage leaves could also be used. He plated the now-moist fish chunks on a bed of blanched broccoli rabe (easily replaced by kale or Swiss chard), with cherry tomatoes and kale that had been sautéed for one minute in olive oil with pepper and fresh garlic and offered a crispy counterpart to the soft fish.
“Kale?” asked one onlooker. “What’s kale?”
“That guy is clearly not getting his veggies from a CSA,” muttered the person standing next to me, referring to the community farms that sell weekly boxes of organic produce to local customers and that are heavy on the curly green leaves right now.
Kimchi noted that while kale is tougher and therefore easier to crisp as a chip, home cooks could also use Swiss chard in its stead.
He completed the preparation with a drizzle of martini butter sauce, made with fish stock, vegetable stock and butter.
“Do you have to use both fish stock and vegetable stock?” I asked, thinking of the unlikelihood of that cooking scenario.
“No,” said Kimchi, “but it’s worth the effort, as it makes the sauce that much richer.”
(Here’s another tip that he put to use in shrimp burgers — served on a steamed bun that takes three hours to make — but which is applicable to any fish, beef or poultry dish: He didn’t want to use any kind of bread crumb or egg filler in the shrimp burgers, so he kneaded the chopped shrimp until it became sticky, a process that takes the protein out and allows the fish to stick together in a ball or burger form.)
Next up was a crispy version of the sea bream, as he tossed the chunks of fish in a mixture of cornmeal and sea salt and then grilled them for a minute and a half, skin down, without any oil. He did the same with large rounds of ravioli stuffed with mascarpone cream, placing the crispy sea bream on the ravioli, with a side of lightly foamed roasted cherry tomatoes (the tomatoes had been roasted in the oven, and then foamed — again with the stick blender) for a lighter sauce, with some aged balsamic vinegar tossed in for flavor.
The following preparation was a favorite for the crowd, probably because it was the easiest to reproduce at home. Kimchi first took chunks of root vegetables, choosing beets, fennel and carrots, and tossed them with olive oil, white wine, and black pepper and roasted them in the oven for half an hour. He then added chunks of the fish, placing them flesh down in the liquid before putting the whole pan in the oven for 10 minutes at 200° Celsius. Simple, easy and deceptively flavorful, agreed Kimchi.
Ovadia added that if the liquid cooks down into a thick sauce, it can be spooned on the fish afterwards. If not, pour it into a pot and cook it down on the stove, adding a little butter — “if you want,” he said — for more flavor.
Kimchi buys only Irish butter, commenting that the local butter contains more than a few preservatives, which is why it lasts so long. At the same time, he’s not always a fan of more expensive ingredients, pointing out that it’s fine to use cheap wine for cooking, as long as it’s one that you would drink.
Finally, Kimchi and Ovadia took chunks of onion, artichoke hearts and white carrot (regular orange carrots can be used as well), added threads of saffron, slices of fresh garlic and white wine, and cooked them until they were almost soft. They then added pieces of sea bream, placing them skin up in the pan to poach them, and sprinkled it all with salt and pepper. They shook the pan continually to make sure the fish was saturated with the sauce.
The result? Flaky and flavorful, with the added texture of meaty artichokes and carrots.
“It’s all about combining Japanese and French techniques,” said Kimchi. “And you know the secrets of French cooking? Butter, wine and butter.”
Makes sense, but it’s always helpful to learn the secrets.
Popina, 3 Ahad Ha’am, Tel Aviv.