Restaurant of the Year: Chef Zach Geerson’s “Branzino Joy”

Zach Geerson, executive chef at Journeyman’s Food and Drink in Fullerton, uses his talent to create dishes that are innovative and irresistible. With a firm footing in classic techniques mastered at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, he showcases alluring twists that bump up flavor and provide stunning presentations.

Orange Coast Magazine named his restaurant “2019 Restaurant of the Year.”

He describes Journeyman’s cuisine as “progressive American,” with progressive defined as what is coming up next, not in terms of flighty trends, but what is right for the restaurant.

In my home kitchen, he prepared pan-roasted branzino fillets accompanied with sides and sauce reflecting a classic French point of view.

The vegetables, blanched-until-tender-crisp asparagus and green beans were tossed with a lemony vinaigrette.

A thyme-infused beurre blanc complimented that crisp-coated fish giving it a luxurious oomph; he strategized that the white butter sauce could be partially made in advance.

 

Asked how he might change the dish for restaurant service rather than a home-style approach, he said that one option would be to skin the branzino fillets and season the belly side of the fish with salt, lemon zest, thyme and fennel pollen; the fillets would be sandwiched in different directions head to tail and enclosed in plastic wrap. Poached quickly, they would be almost like a branzino torchon. The skin would be baked between two silicone mats to be crispy like a fish-skin tuille. Asparagus would be used to create three textures; an asparagus flan, a beautiful asparagus bisque, plus a salad of shaved raw asparagus (jumbo size are used for shaved curls). Instead of beurre blanc straight-up, they would do a milk infusion flavored with unusable ends of the asparagus. With a foaming agent he would create a little foam, so the plating would be reminiscent of seaside foam.

An artist’s vision plays a part on the plate, balanced with steadfast culinary skills. His passion for cooking shines. Read the tattooed truth on his fingers; one direction it’s “food love,” the other reads “love food.” Indeed.

Kitchen Music: He says that music played in the kitchen is very freeing. He has the staff play music whether it’s their own or something he picks.

 

 

He likes to listen to tenor Andrea Bocelli, or compositions from Mozart or Bach. The blues styling of guitarist Joe Bonamassa make him feel every note. The staff feeds off chef’s joyful vibe.

Drink of Choice: A classic Martinez Cocktail – Old Tom gin, sweet Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, orange bitters. Stirred and served neat.

Artistic Dance Man: Before he was a chef, he was a breakdance and hip-hop instructor for adults and children in Fort Myers, Florida. At 8 or 9, he learned by watching videos on TV. In those early years, he also shined at drawing and watercolor painting, plus found time to sing in the church choir.

OC Restaurant Faves: Bruno’s in Brea and Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach

Journeyman’s Food and Drink is located at 1221 E Burton St, Fullerton. See the menu at  journeymanfood.com.

Here is how he scored the branzino – shallow and diagonal.

Geerson’s Pan-Roasted Branzino with Vegetables and Beurre Blanc

Yield: 2 servings

Beurre Blanc:
1 1/2 large shallots, minced plus leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups dry white wine with good acidity such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, (we used extra lemon juice, so chef omitted this ingredient)
12 ounces unsalted chilled butter, diced into small cubes
To Taste: salt, freshly ground white pepper, lemon juice
Vegetables: Handful green beans and several spears of asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces on diagonal, 2 quarts boiling salted water

Basic Vinaigrette for dressing vegetables: 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar, salt and white pepper to taste, 3/4 cup good quality olive oil

For cooking Branzino:
Wondra Flour for dusting
Salt, optional fennel pollen, optional Espelette pepper
Unsalted butter
2 skin-on branzino fillets, pin bones removed (you can ask your local fish supplier to cut your fish into fillets with the scales and pin bones removed. or try yourself at home), scored on skin side at 1 3/4-intervals

  1. Start by preparing beurre blanc sauce reduction. That part of the sauce can be prepared in advance, then finished with the addition of butter right before serving (see Step # 4). In medium-large saucepan, add shallots, thyme, pepper, white wine and vinegar. Bring to simmer; simmer until “au sec” – almost dry, maybe 1 tablespoon of liquid left. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. Cook vegetables in rapidly boiling salted water until tender crisp. Meanwhile prepare vinaigrette, mixing vinegar or lemon juice with salt and pepper. Whisk in oil in thin steam.
  3. Prepare branzino: Dust fish lightly with Wondra flour. Season with salt, fennel pollen (if using) and Espellete pepper (if using). Heat skillet on medium heat. Add generous amount of butter; heat butter until foaming subsides and butter turns a light golden brown (this caramelizes the milk sugars in the butter and lends a nice toasted nut flavor note). Place fish skin side down in skillet away from you as if you are laying a blanket on the bed from the foot of the bed to the headboard. Gently press the fish down flat with the flat side of a fish spatula or small offset spatula for roughly 10-15 seconds. Allow the fish to cook in the pan for about 2-3 minutes or until you notice the edge of the fillets turning a delicious golden brown. Check the fillet’s skin side for even color, and if it is nicely golden brown all over, flip fillets and turn off the heat from the pan. (at this point chef likes to add a few knobs of chilled butter to the pan with some fresh thyme – this will help the pan cool down faster and imparts more delicious flavor.) Place fillets on small warm tray lined with paper towels.
  4. Finish sauce: Warm the reduction from Step #1 on medium heat. When hot, whisk in butter bit by bit, adding another bit when previous additional is incorporated. Continue whisking in butter, remembering to keep it hot enough to incorporate butter but it shouldn’t boil (boiling will break the emulsion). This may require you to remove the pan from heat from time to time. When all butter has been incorporated, taste sauce and adjust by adding salt, pepper or lemon juice if needed. Strain sauce, or leave as is for a little texture
  5. Plating: Toss vegetables with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Divide vegetables between two dinner plates, placing them in a mound. Top with fish. Spoon beurre blanc to one side and serve.

Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”

Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s Produce:

Green Goddess Dressing makes a lovely dip for raw vegetables. The food processor does the work! Learn more about Melissa’s at melissas.com.

Green Goddess Dip with Veggies
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 cup sour cream
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
1 1/2 cups chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
4 green onions, trimmed, chopped, dark green stalks reserved
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
Assorted vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery

  1. In a food processor, puree sour cream, mayonnaise, anchovies, parsley, basil, and green onions (white and light green portion). Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl and cover; refrigerate up to 24 hours.
  2. Finely chop reserved dark-green portion of green onions. Add to dip along with tarragon. Serve with vegetables to use as “dippers.”

Source: adapted from “Martha Stewart’s Appetizers” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter)

 

 

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