Simon Hopkinson was recently reminded of this recipe – an old favourite which he discovered at L'Etoile in the 1970s and which appeared in his first cook book, 'Roast Chicken and Other Stories', back in 1994.

Warm hake with thinned mayonnaise and capers is not, shall we say, a recipe title that might thrill in these days of everything seemingly burnished and smoked, but you would be wrong. It is delicately delicious.

The word ‘warm’, when attached to any kind of food, engenders all sorts of temperature worries: ‘What kind of warm does one mean? And, anyway, why? Surely food should either be served hot with a nice sauce or cooked and served cold with a little sliced-cucumber salad.’

Yet that is exactly how this famous dish is served. Turbot à la Monégasque, a supremely splendid dish, used to be served every single day at the legendary L’Etoile restaurant on Charlotte Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. I’d already read of this place before I first arrived in London in the late 1970s, then as an eager Egon Ronay inspector, and was therefore thrilled to know that a visit to this ‘noteworthy establishment’ was to be one of my earliest inspections.

And so it finally appeared before me, the large glass dish set among other favourites on the famous trolley of hors d’œuvres that would be quietly wheeled around the dining room by a waiter of a certain age, who might have been working up to his present role since a teenage commis waiter.

Barely poached, almost translucent flakes of warm turbot were buried among wobbling layers of a slackened aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), ever-so-thinly sliced raw white onion and chopped parsley. The top layer of the dish was garnished with black olives, watercress and a final gloss of olive oil as a finishing shine.

I shall never forget seeing the waiter’s big silver spoon delving into that fine mass, lifting the most perfect scoop onto my plate in as nonchalant a way as he might deftly wipe his nose with a fine linen handkerchief – elegant, assured, habitual, every day. Rare, these days, such stylish insouciance.

Warm fish with thinned garlic mayonnaise, capers, black olives, parsley and watercress

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 400g–450g de-boned fillet of fish (any fine white fish may be used)
  • Sea salt
  • 200g good-quality mayonnaise (Hellmann’s will not do here)
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt
  • A splash of white-wine vinegar
  • 1 sliced small onion
  • 2 sprigs tarragon
  • A few peppercorns
  • A bayleaf
  • A handful coarsely chopped parsley leaves
  • 1tbspn (heaped) very, very
  • thinly sliced spring onions
  • 2tbspn black olives (small Niçoise, preferably)
  • 4 sliced hard-boiled eggs
  • 1tbspn capers
  • 1 bunch watercress, sprigs carefully picked, washed and dried
  • A little cayenne pepper
  • Best olive oil

Method

Salt the fish generously on both sides and leave in a dish for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the mayonnaise and garlic in a bowl.

Rinse the fish well and place it in a pan that will accommodate it snugly. Just cover with cold water, then remove the fish. Add the vinegar, onion, tarragon, peppercorns and bay, bring up to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Slip in the fish, switch off the heat and leave there for 7–8 minutes or until the fish is only just cooked; test with a fork.

Loosen the mayonnaise with a little of the cooking liquor, to thin it to a coating consistency, and flake the fish.

In a handsome glass dish, create layers of fish with mayonnaise, chopped parsley, spring onions, olives, eggs, capers and watercress. Finish with a final layer of mayonnaise, a few olives and watercress, sprinkle with cayenne and slick with a little olive oil.

Serve forthwith, while still just warm, with some fabulous bread.