Basque in the Glory of Grilled Whole Turbot

Grill fish like the Basques (by not ruining it).

Drizzling vinaigrette on turbot as it cooks on the grill, which keeps the skin from drying out.
Photographs: Vicky Wasik

When planning a trip, I know where I am going to eat before any other logistical details are settled. I may not have sorted out a place to stay, or even a plane ticket yet, but I've already mapped out an aggressive and detailed eating itinerary. I hated doing due diligence during my very short-lived career as a paralegal at a DC law firm, but I will put in way too many hours figuring out where to find a really good meal.

This usually works out well for my travel companions, who don't have to worry about eating poorly, so long as they don't mind downing four squares a day and embarking on the odd food-related pilgrimage. This past June saw one of my most ambitious eating adventures to date, when my wife and I traveled to Spanish Basque country on our honeymoon. Ever since I had gotten serious about food, I had wanted to visit the culinary capital of San Sebastián.

I had pintxo routes mapped out, as well as directions for queuing up to reserve the best slice of tortilla in town. Over the course of the next few days, I put my growing dairy sensitivity issues aside in the name of burnished Basque cheesecake, ate more grilled steak than I had in the past five years (full disclosure: don't combine these two in fast succession; I overdid it on our last night in San Sebastián and made myself very ill, which was not ideal when I had to shake it off for our final meal in the area: a 20-course lunch at Mugaritz), and jostled for standing room and high-pours of cider.

Closeup of grilled turbot on a serving platter

Throughout all this, the meal that will forever stand out in my memory wasn't in San Sebastián proper, but a few miles up the coast in the fishing village of Getaria, at Elkano.

Getaria is famous for its seafood, and the region's bright, slightly effervescent wine, Txakoli. Elkano is known for being the seafood restaurant in the village, commanding the best of the catch from local fishermen at the docks, which are at most a hundred yards away from the restaurant's famous outdoor sidewalk grill. Every morning, a huge bed of charcoal is lit under the adjustable grates of the grill, so that by lunchtime it's hot and ready for the seafood.

Whole turbot set on paper towels on a rimmed baking sheet.

Of the items cooked on this grill, Elkano is best known for its grilled kokotxas (hake "throats" or "jaws"), and whole turbot. Everything is cooked simply, and perfectly. And it has to be, because that is the ethos of the restaurant, put in place by its founding chef, Pedro Arregui: "Buy well and don't ruin it." Use the best product, and don't get in its way.

When you eat their grilled turbot, all of this becomes clear. The technique that goes into cooking fish this well over charcoal is humbling. I won't ever cook turbot that perfectly, and that's all right. But after standing, watching, and chatting in broken Castilian Spanish (my Italian is of no use when it comes to Basque) with the cooks working that sidewalk grill, I have a slight idea of how to not ruin it.

A stainless steel Basque whole-fish grilling basket.

The basic principle of grilling whole turbot in the Elkano style is simple. A whole fish, weighing as little as one kilogram and going up to 2.5 kilograms, is seasoned with salt, placed in a specially designed metal fish basket called a besuguera, and set on the grill close to the coals. I tracked down a couple of these fish baskets while in Getaria (the ones I got aren't perfect for turbot, and should be a little wider), but haven't been able to find them here in the States yet.

Whole fish in a traditional American-style fish basket on the grill.

A more traditional fish basket, like the one pictured above, will work just as well. Either way, the coals should be at moderate heat—not at their peak intensity—so as not to burn the skin of the turbot.

Turning turbot on the grill using handle on the Basque fish-grilling cage.

Being a flat fish, turbot is well-suited for the grill, as each side cooks relatively evenly (although one cooks faster than the other, more on that in a second).

And with no scales to worry about, there isn't a lot of pre-grilling fussing about to be done; the fish should be already gutted by your fishmonger*. The turbot is grilled on its dark-skin side first, for 4 minutes (all timing is based off my conversation and observation with the grill cook at Elkano). The dark side is the one with the turbot's eyes, and the fillets on this side of the spine are much thicker.

*If you cannot order a whole turbot from your fishmonger, we recommend you order turbot online from Browne Trading Company.

Overhead of turbot cooking in a fish-grilling cage on a charcoal grill, with white skin side facing up.

The fish is then flipped over, white-skin-side down, and cooked for another 4 minutes. This is the side of the fish that is in contact with the ocean floor as the turbot swims around looking for Cantabrian anchovies to snack on. While cooking the light side, the dark side gets doused with a simple vinaigrette, the recipe for which is a guarded secret at Elkano, even from the cooks—it is prepared every night by one of two people who know the process, after the rest of the staff has gone home for the evening. It is known as "Lourdes water," but, for our purposes, I use a simple olive oil and white wine vinaigrette in a 3:1 ratio.

Overhead of turbot cooking in a fish-grilling cage on a charcoal grill, with dark skin side facing up

This vinaigrette keeps the skin of the turbot from drying out as it cooks, and later becomes a sauce that will be spooned over the fish. After the 4 minutes are up on the white side, the fish gets flipped over one final time, and finishes cooking on the dark-skin-side for another 4 minutes, resulting in a 12-minute total cook time. As with the previous flip, the white side now gets a heavy dose of vinaigrette, before the turbot is taken off the grill and transferred to a serving platter.

Overhead of whole grilled turbot on a serving platter.

Now the magic happens. Turbot are rich in collagen, which turns to gelatin when subjected to temperatures over 122°F (50°C). This gelatin is trapped under the skin during cooking, causing the skin to blister and puff up in spots, while keeping the flesh succulent and rich.

Portioning and deboning the turbot on a rimmed baking sheet after it comes off the grill.

Once you begin to carve the fish into fillets, gelatin-rich juices from the turbot mix with the dressing (the remainder of which has been poured over the turbot), and with a little coaxing, this mixture can be emulsified into a beautiful, thick sauce, reminiscent of pil pil (a popular preparation for those kokotxas I mentioned earlier).

Using a spoon to emulsify the vinaigrette with natural gelatin from the turbot on the serving platter.

At the restaurant, this filleting and sauce-building are done tableside. After plating fillets and both light and dark pieces of skin (which taste slightly different), the service captain tilts the serving platter so the turbot juices and the Lourdes water pool at the bottom of the platter.

Spooning the emulsified vinaigrette over a fillet of turbot.

Using a spoon and a nifty rapid stirring technique similar to the motion used for butter-basting a steak, the sauce is quickly formed and spooned over the fillets.

I was able to easily replicate this step myself, and filleting the fish couldn't be easier. Simply separate the fillets down the center of the fish (you can use a butter knife, or if you are strapped for tools, a fish spatula will work just fine), remove the spine, and then separate the other two fillets.

Closeup of Sasha picking up and eating the meat from the turbot fins.

You could stop there, or follow the guidance of the Elkano staff, and go to town on the meat around the fins with your hands. This meat is incredibly delicious, like the chicken wing of the turbot.

Separating the turbot head from the rest of the fish after grilling.

Finally there's the head. Let people dig out the cheeks, and gelatinous bits from the head, sucking out every morsel of fish. Washed down with some Txakoli, you'll feel just that little bit closer to a trip to Basque country.