Francis Lam

The critic makes a case for Sang's lukewarn sablefish.

on Sep 4, 2013

It sounds like a small thing, but getting—and keeping—food at the right temperature is one of the great preoccupations of most chefs. When I took my first cooking exam in culinary school, my chef didn’t even taste the food before writing down points: she touched the plate to make sure it was the right temperature. (She also later called the other students over to have a taste of my perfectly-seared scallops, so whassup now, my fishy friends??)

Ahem. Anyway, the point is that temperature really matters. It makes things taste different. Try melting a spoonful of ice cream and eating it next to still-frozen ice cream: the molten stuff seems sweeter. And on the opposite end, heat makes aromatic molecules shake, so things have stronger—and more delicious—smells.

And temperature can make a huge difference in texture, which brings us to Sang’s raw sablefish. To be honest, I actually liked it. Soaking it in dashi gave the fish great depth of flavor, a lingering brininess that I really enjoyed, and the charred flavors in the sauce did a cool trick, making raw food taste agreeably burnt. But what really threw my fellow judges off was the temperature. Sablefish is a very fatty, flabby fish; if it’s very cold, the flesh firms up, giving it more structure and integrity than the… OK, I won’t actually repeat what Jim likened it to off-camera, but it wasn’t pretty. And let’s face it: raw fish that isn’t sparklingly cold does, rightly or wrongly, make you wonder how long it’s been sitting around at room temp. 

We didn’t know that Sang had trouble getting the fish cold during the prep time until we saw it on TV; he’s such a great, perfectionist of a chef, I’m sure he was kicking himself all up and down over it. And, of course, it didn’t help that, in sharing a plate with Bryan’s hot preparation, he couldn’t chill the plate first either. But cheer up, Sang! I would’ve eaten it again, happily. 

Speaking of sharing, it was interesting that Jen and Douglas were the only team who decided to do one single dish, instead of two dishes on one piece of china. I don’t think it was that, exactly, that made them win, but the surprise of having this freshly-fried, hot fish sit right on top of cool crudo, surrounded by cool broth, was a delight. The kimchi in the raw John Dory's cure gave the dish a different sensation of heat. And cucumbers always give a cooling sense -- all of these elements played off of each other, a brilliant riff on what hot and cold mean in food.