On Thursday, 1 March 2001, I ate a perfect meal. Flawless, immaculate, irreproachable. A meal astounding in its simplicity yet as exciting as anything I have ever put in my mouth. A meal devoid of the usual bells and whistles so beloved of restaurant chefs and Michelin inspectors. There was no hiding place on this plate, no frills, no ego: just a piece of white fish on a white plate on a white tablecloth. A paper tablecloth, at that.
It takes a brave cook to ask a king's ransom for a piece of fish unadorned but for a spoonful of greens and a wedge of lemon. Even if that fish is a slice of turbot as thick as your thumb and as pure and white as the snow that falls whilst we sleep. For once, a piece of fish that had actually been cooked properly, none of this raw-in-the-middle stuff that's so popular right now. (If I wanted sushi, I'd have gone to a Japanese restaurant.) But this was the real thing - understated and cleanly presented. No sauce, no twiddly bits, no bull. Nothing to hide behind, you see - for once the chef is truly naked. It takes a genius to pull off such cooking. But they did, that rain-lashed, winter-spring lunchtime at the River Cafe in London.
I have never been the sort of gushing foodie who asks a chef for 'the recipe'. Only a naive home cook could assume that a professional chef can communicate the accumulated nous of a decade behind the stove in a single sentence. Such enjoyable eating isn't about recipes. It is about cooking. No sieves, pestles and mortars, blenders, blow torches and piping bags here. No truffles, foie gras, cocks' combs and bee pollen either. I am willing to bet this cook's recipe involved little more than fish, olive oil, salt and pepper.
But what fish! I have probably eaten more memorable fish dishes in the past 12 months than I have eaten at any time in my life. There was the immaculate grilled lemon sole at St John in London's Clerkenwell last June, served with runner beans that tasted like they used to and followed by a tender and homely gooseberry tart; the black cod at Ubon in Canary Wharf with its fat, silken flakes and sweet coating of miso and mirin; the Dover sole at Sheekey's in Theatreland and its accompanying silver sauce-boat of Hollandaise sauce and creamed spinach. Less expensively, and less than a week ago, the lump of pearl-white halibut at Fish!, the bustling restaurant that now has branches in Birmingham and Guildford as well as London. Pity about the chips.
OK, so I hate mucked-about food and will invariably choose the simplest thing on the menu whether I am in Bristol or Bombay, but that can also be the biggest risk - good eating is more about the quality of the ingredients and the surefootedness of the cook than it is about recipes and frills. The upside for us home cooks is that we have only to grasp a technique and to work at it, quietly, thoughtfully, until we get it right. The downside is that we may not get it quite right for a while.
There can be nothing wrong, surely, with doing something over and over again until you get it as you like it. In fact, I see every reason to work at a recipe or an idea till it is spot on and gives you certain pleasure as you eat. It may, or may not, be the classic way to do something, it is just that it as good as it can be. A perfect thing. And so it is with fish.
I say a whispered 'thank you' every time I pass my local fishmonger and he is still there, busily trading. I dread the day he retires. I shall be the first there to adorn his empty windows with graffiti and good wishes - Cod rest his sole; gone to a better plaice; may he Rest In Peas - but I'd miss him terribly. Fish long ago replaced meat as my protein of choice. Local fishmongers are few and far between; we must support them. I go there - a 30-minute walk - twice a week, but rarely with a shopping list. I make a spot decision based on sight, smell and my fishmonger's suggestion.
Right now I am into simple baked fish. It is not an exaggeration to say that we should pay more attention to baking a piece of fish than to a soufflé. More than meat or even vegetables, you can all too easily miss the moment. I don't go along with the trend for fish that is incinerated without and raw within. I don't even see the point. But it is the judging of whether a piece of haddock, hake, brill, cod or - for those who can find it and afford it - turbot that is at its point of perfection which remains the crux of fish cookery.
It is easy enough, though. Fish is ready to eat when the meat has shrunk slightly from its bones; you can peel its skin off without difficulty and the flesh will come easily away from the bone. The flakes must be easy to separate and will have made the brief passage from translucent to opaque. We are talking minutes here. Even for fish that is cooked right through, you should start checking after 10 minutes, but please, let's squash this silly trend for the raw-in-the-middle. It is an affectation, but more to the point - not what they try to have us believe - it just ain't cooked.
Baked halibut, lemon and parsley
The point here is the fish, so choose it wisely and be generous with the pre-oven seasoning. Fresh and perky parsley is essential. You will want something else on your plate, though I suggest not much. Some lightly cooked spinach, tossed in a little butter after draining or maybe some chard leaves given similar treatment. Or, if you can get it, some stems of sea kale. Serves 2.
2 slices of halibut or monkfish, about 250g each
olive oil and a big knob of butter
juice of 1 lemon
a good handful of roughly chopped, spanking-fresh flat-leaf parsley
Get the oven really hot, setting it to at least 220 C/ gas mark 7. Put a shallow, oven-proof frying pan (ie one with a metal handle) over a high heat and add enough olive oil and butter to cover the bottom. Rub the fish thoroughly with salt and black pepper and lower each piece carefully into the hot oil. Leave the fish be for a minute or two, then gently slide a palette knife or fish slice underneath and quickly, firmly turn it over. Dither and you will break it. Leave for a further minute or two till there is a thin golden layer on the underside, then put the whole thing in the hot oven.
Bake the fish until it is just set and a brilliant chalky white inside, and test by teasing out a large flake. It should come fairly easily away from the bone. The fish should be ready in about 10 minutes depending on the thickness and variety. Lift the fish on to warm plates, leaving the meagre juices in the pan. Taking care of the hot handle, put the pan over a moderate heat, squeeze in the lemon and toss in the parsley. Bring to a fierce bubble and tip over the plated fish.
Baked bream or brill with oregano and bay leaves
Any whole, white fish would be fine here. Take a look at your fishmonger's slab: there may be lemon sole, plaice, sea bass or red mullet. The point is that the fish is cooked for a short time at a high temperature. For more than one fish you will need a large roasting tin or baking tray. Serves 2, unless the fish is small.
a medium-sized bream or brill or any of the fish above
6 bay leaves
4 large sprigs of dried oregano or several fat pinches of the ready crumbled sort
Set the oven at 240 C/gas mark 8. Rinse and dry the fish - I pat it with kitchen roll - then lay it flat in baking dish. Shake a little olive oil over the fish, then scatter with the herbs, squeeze over the lemon juice and season with a grinding of sea salt and black pepper.
The fish is ready when the skin peels away easily and the flesh is opaque. Test to see if the flesh will part easily form the bone. If it doesn't, then bake it for another few minutes. The time it takes will, of course, depend on the type and weight of your fish, but you should start testing after 10 minutes.
Lift the fish from the dish on to a warm serving plate and spoon any juices over the fish. Serve with the sauce below.
A punchy sauce for a baked fish
Green sauces with lively flavours are best suited to fish that have been robustly roasted with lemon, garlic and the tougher herbs.
1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley
6 bushy sprigs of basil
6 anchovy fillets, salted or packed in oil
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp capers
extra-virgin olive oil
Tear the parsley and basil leaves from their stems and stuff them into a food processor. Rinse the salt or oil from the anchovies and toss them in with the herbs, the mustard and the capers and blitz till all is a thick mush.
Start pouring in the oil in a long, steady drizzle, and watch the mixture start to thicken (we are only talking seconds here). The sauce should be a thick slush. Season with lemon juice and serve, cold, with the hot fish.
Nigel Slater's book Appetite (£25, Fourth Estate) has won the André Simon Memorial Fund Award for Food Book of the Year.