A French Fish Classic Served With a Twist

PARIS--Almost anyone with a bit of cooking knowledge will know that the words a la meuniere on a menu translate as ''in the style of the miller's wife,'' and that means the item in question has been dusted parsimoniously with flour, then cooked to a golden brown in a sizzling pan with the finest unsalted butter one can get one's hands on.

In the past year or so I have had a thing about sole meuniere, that glorious classic of French cooking - moist, fleshy, sweet white fish - prepared in the traditional manner, then served whole, tableside, doused with a luscious and fragrant brown butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a shower of minced parsley leaves.

As I sampled sole here and there about Paris, I studied the moistness and size of the Brittany sole at one restaurant, the color and fragrance of the brown butter at another, the dexterity of the server in filleting the fish at yet another.

Hands down, the best sole can be found at the famed Montparnasse Art Deco brasserie Le Dome - whose prized fish comes from the Ile d'Yeu on the Brittany coast. I set aside one morning to spend in the kitchen with Le Dome's chef, Frank Graux. I expected to pick up a few tips, but hardly expected him take all the classic ideas of the cooking of this delicate prize and throw them out the window.

Just when you think you know everything about a preparation, you realize you know nothing. While most traditional recipes for sole suggest you skin the fish, dust it with flour and cook it in clarified butter, Graux does none of that. In fact, the idea of leaving the skin intact came from his children. One day he served them turbot with the skin, and one cleaned his plate then asked if there was some more of that crispy skin left over.

So when you go to Le Dome to sample his incomparable sole, you will find him cooking the treasure in lightly salted butter (the best, he says, is the Sevre & Belle brand from the cooperative in Sevre et Belle, Celles sur Belle Deux-Sevres), which he says burns less than unsalted butter. (He dismissed the traditional idea of cooking in clarified butter, which does burn less but which is, to his mind, denatured and void of flavor.)

To eke the most flavor from the fish, Graux does not skin it, but merely scales, guts and trims it. The skin acts as a natural protective shield, keeping the fish moist and eliminating the need for flour as a protective barrier. As an added treat, you get the gentle crispiness and slightly gelatinous nature of the thin skin that his children so loved.

Cooking the fish in a heavy-duty nonstick pan, Graux cooks each side for about four minutes, attentively regulating the heat so the butter does not burn. If the thought of all that butter gives you pause, order the fish seche, so that the cooking butter is not poured back over the fish. This makes for a dish that is extremely light, wholesome and flavorful.

Le Dome's crew is so proud of their preparation that they prefer to present the fish whole to diners, allowing them to filet the fish at table, a tradition I applaud. The fish stays warmer, and there is something positive and primal about having an entire fish set before you.

One of my favorite wines with fish and shellfish is Domaine Mardon's Quincy, a pure sauvignon blanc Sancerre-style white whose aromatic grassiness stands up nicely to the sole, as well as to oysters.

Other spots where I have loved the sole are the classic brasserie and restaurant La Closerie des Lilas and the historic monument of a restaurant that was built in 1904, La Vagenende, in the heart of Saint-Germain des Pres.

  • Le Dome
    108, Boulevard du Montparnasse
    Paris 750014
    Tel: 01-43-35-25-81
    Fax: 01-42-70-01-19.
    Open daily. All major credit cards. A la carte, 400 to 450 francs, including service but not wine. Sole priced at 205 francs.

  • La Closerie des Lilas
    171, Boulevard du Montparnasse
    Paris 75006.
    Tel: 01-40-51-34-50
    Fax: 01-43-29-99-94.
    Open daily. All major credit cards. A la carte, 400 to 450 francs, including service but not wine. Sole in the brasserie costs 180 francs; in the restaurant it is 420 francs for two people.

  • Restaurant Vagenende
    142 Boulevard Saint-Germain
    Paris 75006.
    Tel: 01-43-26-68-18
    Fax: 01-40-51-73-38.
    Open daily. Credit cards: Visa, American Express, Diner's Club. A la carte, 200 to 300 francs, including service but not wine. The sole is 152 francs.