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By Pierre Franey


See the article in its original context from
September 1, 1982


Section C, Page

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WHEN fish is ordered in an American restaurant, it generally arrives at the table skinless, headless, tailless and boneless. All that remains is white flesh that gives no clue to the size, shape or color of the original. European restaurants generally serve the entire fish except, of course, for the entrails.

European professional chefs, and most home cooks, do this because they believe fish retains its flavor better when cooked whole. Diners also like it because they want to know what they are eating, visual pleasure being an important part of the meal. In restaurants waiters often offer to fillet the fish at tableside, but many customers prefer to do it themselves. For this reason most Western European restaurants that serve seafood also supply customers with special knives for filleting. Most households also have a set of fish knives, which can be purchased with matching forks.

For cooks in this country who enjoy preparing whole fish such as small sea bass or fresh trout, fish knives make an elegant and useful addition to the table setting. In the few American restaurants where I have seen fish knives offered, such as La Recolte and Le Cirque, both in Manhattan, customers often confuse them with bread knives. Their blunt edges and wide surfaces make the two knives appear similar, but there is a difference. Fish knives come to a point at the cutting end, unlike butter knives, which are rounded. The fish knife also has small notches on one side of the blade, near the tip. Little notches are also found on the matching fish forks to distinguish them from dessert forks.

Fish knives are blunt because cooked fish is so easy to cut. A dull knife cuts through the fish easily but is not as likely to go through the softened bones as a steak knife would.

One generally fillets a fish by first pulling away the head and tail fins, which are easily detached with the knife. Next, run the knife down the center of the body, following the central bone. Then fold the top fillet back from the bone as if it were the top flaps of a cardboard box. The knife is then wedged under the exposed bone at the head end and run gently down to the tail, at which point the bone is lifted away, leaving only the bottom fillet. Then fold the top fillet back over the bottom one. The slit down the middle is sometimes covered with sauce or garnish.

An even more specialized piece of tableware that is found only in the most elegant restaurants is the sauce spoon. This flat, wide spoon is designed to scoop up the most shallow puddle of sauce from a flat plate. Anyone who has tried to do this decorously with a soup or coffee spoon - and perhaps finally, in exasperation, resorted to sopping up the sauce with bread -will understand the value of this custom tool. It is particularly useful for game and fowl dishes that are served with a thin sauce made from blood and cooking juices.

Elegantly designed fish knives and sauce spoons, made of silver over a nickel core by Ricci Italian Silversmiths of Los Angeles, are sold at Ginori Fifth Avenue, 711 Fifth Avenue (56th Street). The knives cost $24, the spoons $25. Pierre Franey


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