Vegas Uncork’d: At The Fish Market With Costas Spiliadis
Definitely the most memorable event for me during this year’s Uncork’d was titled “At The Fish Market with Costas Spiliadis,” executive chef and restarateur of Estiatorio Milos in the Cosmopolitan.
Regardless of the title, we didn’t actually visit a fish market, but along with co-host Ryan Scott (Bon Appetit Collection Chef), the charming Spiliadis wove stories and advice together while he displayed and demonstrated buying and preparing a variety of fish and seafood in Milos’ bright, minimalist dining room–which is highlighted by a dramatic display of fresh fish and produce.
Before he began, guests enjoyed flutes of Tselepos Amalia Brut Greek sparkling wine along with passed crab cake spoons (almost entirely sweet lump meat), crispy buttery finger-size spanikopita and huge grilled shrimps with mostarda.
After we sat, Chef Milos opened with a story about journeying with a writer to a random seaside café, to wager whether the fish really was so good everywhere in Greece (it was), Costas said of his countrymen, “Our relationship to food, to ingredients, it’s a natural thing. There’s no big secrets, no scientific methods. I don’t take a thermometer to the fish market…”
However, Spiliadis disabused the notion that clean, direct food is easy. “People call it ‘simple’ cooking, which is wrong. It’s a difficult process.
“Knowing your limits in interfering with product is a difficult thing. Hubris is the only thing not forgiven in Greece.”
The meal began with Milos’ special thin-fried zucchini and eggplant (he told an amusing story about the first time he was ripped off buying eggplant, then finding how to get it with as few seeds as possible) alongside a quartet of spreads: taramosalata (caviar, bread, onion), scordalia (garlic & almonds), tzatziki (yogurt, cucumbers) and hummus.
How to choose fish? Spiliadis’ offered two basic guidelines:
• Know what is in season, and buy that way. “If the market allows you to touch it, it must be firm, eyes must be clear, but don’t worry about the gills.” Pointing out that his huge display in the room gives off no odor, he continued that a fresh fish never smells “like fish.”
• Next, build a relationship with your supplier. Give them feedback on the product. “And the best way to do that? Roughly! ‘That fish you sold me was terrible. But I give you another chance…’”
As Milos continued, we enjoyed a succession of hot entrees: light and crispy calamari; grilled, woody and tender octopus; dill-scented fried soft shell crab and then a dramatic, huge grilled lobster.
“It’s always been important to me to use fish in a natural way,” he said, “but I’ve become a little cynical with the whole discussion about ‘sustainable.’ Organic is exaggerated, overrated. We have decent small farmers doing things right, but they don’t have the money for certification…” Milos prefers the term ‘unconventional’ to any other.
Regarding fishing, he says, “It’s very simple: don’t fish during reproduction. But that doesn’t mean we should blacklist certain fish.”
The chef then demonstrated the classic way of preparing whole fish in a salt crust–he uses sea salt from a specific island in Greece–cooking it at 450 degrees for 20 minutes first pound, 10 minutes each additional pound, then carefully peeling back the crust and skin of a huge lavraki (Greek sea bass) to reveal the moist fish inside.
“I think sea salt is one of the great things God has given us,” said Milos.
And then we ate the unbeatably moist, tender, flaky fish.
A trio of desserts finished the lengthy and decadent afternoon: baklava, galaktoboureko, and "chocolate sin."
Thx to my lunchmate Peter Harbage for the dessert pix.