x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fishing for condiments

Colin Clague, the chef at Zuma in Dubai, demonstrates how he prepares sea bass.

Sophia Money-Coutts watches the Zuma chef Colin Clague grilling sea-bass.
Sophia Money-Coutts watches the Zuma chef Colin Clague grilling sea-bass.

There is serious debate about what I am going to cook in my lesson at Zuma. Some kind of bream was the first thought, a dish involving the delicate white fish's being one of the latest additions to the Zuma menu. But I arrive to find the dish has not quite made it on to the menu yet, because Colin Clague, the restaurant's executive chef, is not completely happy yet. "I'm still tinkering with it, I'm always experimenting," he says. "I add five or so new dishes every five to six weeks, but only when they're perfect. Nearly isn't good enough."

I nod. Instead, Clague breezes on, my lesson will be to cook a piece of sea bass. Salt-grilled sea bass with burnt tomato relish to be precise, with a piece of bass that has flown in from France. Not by itself, you understand, but in an aircraft. Food miles not a concern then? "At the moment it is virtually all imported," Clague admits of Zuma's fish supplies, shipped in from regions including Japan, Europe and America. "The waters [here] are too warm. In winter we try to use local hammour, sole and crab in some of the dishes but the colder the water the better the fish."

Beef comes from a specific cattle-ranch in Australia called Ranger's Valley, which he is to visit soon. "Sure, I could get it for Dh100 per kilo, but I pay Dh160," he says of the beef ordered from there. He's exacting, is our Colin, and when he first started at Zuma (having come from the original Zuma in London), around 15 per cent of his supplies were deemed below par and sent back. "I don't think I made myself many friends," he smiles.

So to the kitchen, where I am handed an apron and told to stand behind the robata grill. It's hot. Furiously hot. "Up to 360 degrees celsius," says one of several sous-chefs behind me. The plump piece of sea bass is scored on the back and Clague rubs sea-salt into it. Maldon sea salt, take note, not any old rubbish. Skewers are run through it and I place it gently, skin-side down, on the grill. "For about seven minutes," says Clague casually, as if this were a vague measurement. But I once burnt spaghetti while it boiled in the pan, so I appreciate an exact instruction. I stand solemnly by the grill and scrutinise its progress, as my face shrivels like a roasted marshmallow on a stick.

How do the chefs manage it, on busy Thursday evenings when they have to whack through almost 600 covers? They shrug and smile. "It's called Yakitori face," Clague laughs, as I wrinkle my nose at the heat. A batch of the tomato "salao", a Japanese salsa, has already been made and sits behind the grill but Clague runs me through the process. The salsa must be made fresh, because otherwise water seeps out of the tomatoes and renders it too runny.

I inspect the recipe that he hands me and notice that the quantities are alarmingly vague. Non-existent, in fact. The spaghetti memory strikes again, so I ask him if he could be more specific. "It's all about taste, as no ingredient is the same," he says, but gratifyingly gives me a pointer all the same. For about 10 portions he says you need about eight tomatoes, one small white onion, 50g jalapeno chillies, 10g coriander, 10ml ginger juice, chilli oil and freshly ground salt and pepper to taste.

The bass is turned over for a couple of minutes on the other side of the grill, before being whipped off, removed from the skewers and placed on a bamboo leaf. "Bamboo leaves are available at Deans near Lamcy Plaza," advises Clague for the benefit of home chefs who want to recreate the trendy Zuma look. Salsa is then spooned on top of the fish and I squeeze a thick wedge of lemon over the whole thing. It's delicious, of course; the sharp, fresh flavours of the salsa make a cracking pairing with the meaty flakes of the sea bass.

Some people are squeamish about fish skin, but shouldn't be here. The salt crisps the skin and gives the entire dish a slight crunch. Grilled fish and vegetables are the traditional staples of boring old diets, but who says they have to be dull? Zuma, DIFC, Dubai (04 425 5660)