Fresh peas and lemon brighten Lee Cooper's baked halibut

Now in season, this firm fish can be cooked simply in the oven, and periodic basting with olive oil and water keeps it moist

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      This spring, L’Abattoir is experiencing a renewal of sorts. When the Georgia Straight stopped by 217 Carrall Street on a recent morning, the loud thwacking of hammers and screeching of power saws could be heard from our interview spot in the kitchen. Clouds of construction dust billowed through Gaoler’s Mews. In May, L’Abattoir plans to unveil a new 1,200-square-foot private dining space, in addition to the regular dining room.

      “All the heavy lifting is going on right now, and all the plumbing is going into the ground,” executive chef and co-owner Lee Cooper told the Straight. “We get so many people who want to come here with a group of 12 or 16, but we currently don’t take tables over six just because of quality control.…We turn away a lot of business.”

      Cooper and his business partners, Paul Grunberg and Nin Ari, opened L’Abattoir nearly four years ago. The Victoria-born chef got his start in the restaurant industry at an A&W run by his family before going to work for his uncle, chef Bernard Casavant, at his namesake, now-closed Whistler restaurant.

      “Seeing him, I didn’t aspire to be him, but as I got older he was really successful—and still is—and I saw that I could be successful and actually have a career,” Cooper said.

      After five years in the Okanagan and one in England, where he worked at the Michelin-­starred Fat Duck, Cooper moved to Vancouver. When it came time to open his own restaurant, his one requirement was to serve polished food in a relatively casual environment.

      “My background is predominantly in high-end, fine-dining restaurants, but I don’t like going to those restaurants because it’s not comfortable. I hate going to restaurants where you feel underdressed if you’re in jeans and a T-shirt,” Cooper explained. “I wanted a restaurant where you could eat really well, get really attentive service and drink, and have all the things you get in a fine-dining restaurant without having to go to a fine-dining restaurant.”

      Cooper added that high-end food doesn’t necessarily mean fussy food. His favourite dishes are ones that are recognizable and offer fairly traditional flavour combinations.

      “We never want to challenge somebody to try and like something, because if you’re trying it’s probably not good,” he said.

      The halibut recipe below is one Cooper believes is easy for home cooks. Basting the fish with a mixture of olive oil and water as it cooks in the oven keeps the dish moist. He suggests using fillets of halibut, which are in season from now into summer, but the recipe will work with most fish. He says the peas and a burst of lemon provide the fresh taste of spring. L’Abattoir’s sommelier, Robert Herman, suggests pairing the dish with a glass of Aligoté from Burgundy.

      Lee Cooper’s baked halibut with peas and lemon

      Ingredients

      4 boneless, skinless fillets of halibut, about 5 oz (140 g) each
      2 cups (500 mL) fresh English peas, shelled (if substituting frozen peas, defrost to room temperature)
      ¼ cup (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
      2 Tbsp (30 mL) water
      1 lemon
      1 bunch pea sprouts

      Method

      1. Preheat oven to 350 ° F (180 ° C).
         
      2. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Blanch peas for 1 minute. Plunge peas into an ice-water bath to stop cooking, then drain and set aside.
         
      3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Season both sides of fish fillets with salt, then place on baking sheet. Mix 2 Tbsp (30 mL) of the olive oil and the water together, and sprinkle over the fish. Bake about 15 minutes, removing from oven every 5 minutes to baste fish with the oil-and-water mixture.
         
      4. While fish is in the oven, heat the peas in a small pan with remaining 2 Tbsp (30 mL) of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and zest the lemon over top.
         
      5. To serve, divide fillets among 4 plates and squeeze lemon juice over each. Divide peas between plates, and garnish with pea sprouts.

      Yield: 4 main-size servings.

      Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.

      L'Abattoir chef Lee Cooper bakes halibut

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