Deep in my accordion folder of recipes that I use far too infrequently is a browned tear out from the pages of the Independent that has to be at least 18 years old now. It's for Seared Ahi Tuna with Black Sesame Risotto and Ponzu Sauce and comes from the David Cecchini years at the Wine Cask. Now such a recipe might seem mere shorthand to say mid '90s, but it really seemed like something to me then, a gustatory definition of my move to California from Pennsylvania, where I lived previously. (Note: the culinary revelation of Central PA is the grilled sticky bun at Ye Olde College Diner.) I grew up thinking risotto was a fluorescent yellow and couldn't eat it without humming "the San Francisco treat." I certainly had had a lot of sushi--I wasn't a complete food philistine prior to turning 30--but the idea of seared fish, that is fish cooked, but sort of not, was pretty novel. This dish was something else, light on its feet, bright in its flavors, surprisingly meaty, especially as I was still pescatarian at the time.
I bring all this up since Brandon Hughes, the current chef at the gloriously resurrected Wine Cask (the Bernard Rosenson era now seems like a sort of bad dream, the way Ava Gardner must have recalled her mirage marriage to Mickey Rooney) has dusted off this menu classic in thrilling fashion and you can (really, should) eat it right now. He's offering rosemary-crusted ahi tuna (seared rare) with sunflower seed "risotto," grilled asparagus, and cherry tomato confit. First, note, this is a seasonal dish, now, as everything must be if you want to be a restaurant of note (the food revolution has been won in many ways, you know), what with the grilled asparagus and the tomatoes shouting summer. But then the sunflower seeds do that, too, but let's leave them for a bit.
For we have to talk about rosemary-crusted tuna. Certainly rosemary is a different taste than the usual cracked black pepper backed with lots of salt (and sometimes sesame seed). In its evergreen-ness, it can be overpowering; in its needle-ness it can poke the heck out of the soft palate. Somehow Hughes avoids both these dangerous fates. This is seriously chopped rosemary, and somehow mellowed too--I'm not quite sure what he does. But it provides just enough of a grilled pine to go with the ahi's brine to make the dish new. (Of course the fish is cooked exactly as you'd want, bright red still at its interior and charred on the edges, and it melts on your tongue.)
As a decided classicist, I have to admit food in air quotes sends a series of emotions through me, tripping my BS meter while worrying me about whether it might be food at all. Luckily in this case "risotto" simply means in place of rice Hughes uses sunflower seeds--otherwise the preparation is largely the same. This is a brilliant idea, the seeds of course nutty but mellow both because that's just their flavor and of their minute size. Still, cook them in enough butter and stock and wine and they are both tender and whatever the word is before crunch becomes onomatopoetic. That's even better than rice, especially with the oh-so-perfect fish, that could use this chewier foil.
Then the rest of the plate is about all the balance you want, visually with the green and red for some drama, and for taste, especially the bit of acid the tomatoes bring. Add it all up and it's like discovering California again.