If you’re reading this I’d imagine you have a bit of an interest in cooking and good food, which can be both a blessing and a curse when going out to eat.
See, like most of you, it becomes quickly apparent when a dish arrives, how much effort went into the preparation and the ingredients involved. Once you’ve established this, it quickly becomes even more apparent whether the price you’re paying is ‘fair’.
Last night we went out for dinner at a decent chain Italian restaurant in the City, mainly, seeing as the weather is so good, for the outdoor seating. I tend to avoid chains, as invariably I leave, at best, underwhelmed, or at worst slightly annoyed. Whilst most are very nicely decked out with exposed timbers, shabby-chic fixtures and theme driven posters, a majority of them with their advantageous locations have high ground rents and wage bills and, therefore, squeezed margins. So what gives? Inevitably it’s the food, be it in the quantity or, and more importantly, the quality.
Lat night I ordered the Cacciucco – a kind of Tuscan fish stew with Sardinian fregola. Perfect summer food I thought. But then when it arrived the squid (both pieces) were more akin to a fan belt. It also comprised a handful of fregola, two small slivers of fish, three very small clams, two mussels and a prawn. Yes, a single prawn. Two large pieces of bread were added, presumably to resemble anything like a meal and take up half the plate – completing the illusion. All for a “bargain” £16.95.
If there were £2 worth of ingredients in the dish I’d be surprised, especially at wholesale prices. I was hardly expecting Bouillabaisse from the Southern coast of France but still…
Ah, well, weather was good and the Peroni was cold.
Across town there’s a great family run restaurant called Panis. I’ve mentioned it before. It won’t win a Michelin star but it’s proper Sardinian food with half the decor and half the price. The service is also great and no loyalty cards are being pushed. Sadly, no al-fresco dining, but lesson learned.
So being the bloody-minded type, I had to force the point home by making one of the most modest of salads – panzanella – and with it, some seabass fillets. The cost? £7 for both of us. £6 of it being the fish.
The key ingredient of panzanella of course it some stale bread, it’s a brilliant way to use up an old loaf if you’ve too many breadcrumbs already, or even if you don’t.
I used a mixture of tomatoes (oven drying some of them) for a bit of variety, some green leaves, and herbs from the garden. The dressing itself was also so simple, even forgoing the balsamic for the more austere red-wine vinegar.
I cooked the seabass on the grill outside with woodchips for smoke and whilst delicious, mine did break. A schoolboy error for the presentation. Unfortunately the other one was being tucked into by Helen….
- 2 seabass fillets
- 1 tbsp olive oil
For the salad:
- Half a red onion, finely sliced
- A mixture of tomatoes, halved or quartered
- Stale bread, cut into cubes. As much as you need.
- 2 tbsp capers
- 1 sprig of marjoram or fresh oregano, leaves removed
- A few basil leaves
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp good olive oil
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1/2 to 1 tsp sugar (to taste)
- Salt to taste
Make the dressing up then separate and add the finely sliced onions to mellow a bit while you do the rest.
I made oven dried tomatoes by halving 4 of them, sprinkling with a little salt and baking on a tray for about 15 minutes at 160°C/320°F. Remove and leave to cool.
Arrange the plate with the salad ingredients.
Season and grill the fish until just done – sea bass doesn’t take long if at room temperature, just few minutes.
Arrange it on the plate with the rest and dress the salad with the, making sure the bread gets plenty of the vinaigrette.
Enjoy with a sense of smug satisfaction!
Nice tomato. Nice every thing.
Thanks Rosemary. One of life’s simple pleasures, like so much Italian food.
Photography is getting very good, competing with Conor! I need to read a book about food photography – mine is getting worse!
Cheers for that! I have actually invested (a bit too much) in a decent lens. Add in a bit of decent evening light and it does make for more ‘flattering pics’. But, I’ve also recently bought a book – so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know! If that makes sense..
Thanks for the compliment. I have bought a few books and now know even less than I did when I started. A good lens is the best starting point.
It’s so disappointing to have a poor, shoddy (and pretty expensive!) meal out. Looks like you made up for it well 🙂 looks yum, wish I had outdoor cooking facilities!
It certainly is. Can’t be good for business as noone likes feeling short-changed. Must admit, the BBQs (gas and charcoal) have been getting a lot of use lately – whilst I still can!
While I love to sit outside and I’ve been to some great restaurants on cliff tops and harbours in Provence, I’d rather have good food than fresh air – I’d go for Panis over terrace and poor food any day. I bet your sea bass al fresco was excellent though 😉
Cheers MD. They were from Morrisons – kudos for doing the weird and wonderful array of fruit and veg. 9-5 (if I’m lucky) makes going to speciality shops difficult.
Definitely with you, give me substance over style any day!
Well you can always have a couple of drinks before and after the meal. I hate eating disappointing food that I could cook a lot better 😉
Too right, especially when being overcharged for it too!
You’ve put together a great meal here. Both components sound terrific!
Thanks John. Perfect for a summers evening food. Sadly, we were out out white wine though…..
I love seabass & panzanella salad. This sounds like a terrific meal Phil. Delicious!
Thank you Anne. I think the two compliment each other really well. I just need to invest in one of those BBQ fish grill baskets now!
Your experience of dining is all too familiar, I’m afraid and now we tend to stick to places we know deliver, even if they are more expensive. Less is more so I’d rather have good food less often than average food frequently. Your recipe looks fantastic, love sea bass, and this would clearly blow the socks off your chain experience. BTW, don’t know the tomato variety, looks heritage and certainly is beautiful!
Thanks T. Welcome back! Italian salads are the best aren’t they?
Completely agree with the restaurant comment. We went for style and lost the substance! Shame, but not surprising.
I’ve had the fan belt squid too often. I have to admit that I also get upset with the ingredients cost / value equation too often. Not good if you are bringing somebody out…
Nothing worse than feeling like you’ve been ‘had’ by some bean counter with an Excel spreadsheet. But then to cook it badly too…..
Summers were meant for dishes like these! I’ll be pining after that fish until I get some grilled over here, with tomatoes like those.
You’re so right – perfect summer food. Anything Italian inspired just works so well. Thanks for visiting!
So funny to read this because since I started learning how to cook over a year ago and have become more familiar with ingredients and how food is prepared, I’ve inadvertently become a food snob at fine restaurants. (I’m really not a snob.) When a dish costs US$28++ and I know I can make 8 servings of that same dish, plus get a bottle of wine, a salad and some dog cookies, I have to be picky what I order. To avoid disappointment (and regret spending a week’s worth of groceries on an evening of fine dining), I will try to order something I know I will like, or perhaps a dish I’ve never made or one with a new twist on ingredients. I know — we go out for the ambiance, to give orders and be served, enjoy intimate conversation amongst clinking glasses and dinner plates or simply a night out on the town. A home-cooked meal never sounded so good still holds true.
Sounds like we’re on the same wavelength here. I totally get the ‘food snob’ concept – but in this case it’s a good thing! You’ve learned to appreciate good food/produce and now know the effort that’s sometimes required to create it.
We like the nice restaurants, don’t get me wrong, but had some of our most memorable meals in the most modest places. It’s all about the food isn’t it!
I made your tasty sea bass dish a few days ago & ate it in the garden with my husband Peter! We both loved the simplicity of it: great flavours & textures too! Yummm! 😊
Great! Thanks Sophie. It’s brilliant summer food isn’t it?
Yes, yes, yes! 🙂
It is so difficult to dine out as a chef. You captured that sentiment wonderfully! It’s an interesting realization when your food is less expensive, healthier, and tastier, yet you haven’t been paid to make it!
It interesting isn’t it? I think the chains are naturally the worst for this and the word chef is sometimes used very loosely!
I’m afraid I can’t really help you with the tomato variety as I’m no expert….THOUGH my mum (who is) dropped round a Russian variety called a Black Krim, which it looks quite similar to….
What a beautiful recipe though. Embarrassingly, I’d never heard of a panzanella until a few weeks ago, and now I keep stumbling across it everywhere….even on a Tescos recipe card yesterday. Yours looks far better though. On my list of recipes to try. Thanks!
Thanks Rach. Definitely one to try. It’s a typical Italian thing, so simple yet full of flavour if you use decent ingredients. Cheers for the suggestion of the variety too – that looks like the one!