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The Daley Question

Palmer House tartar sauce fondly remembered

Served with a 'filet of sole' that wasn't sole at all

Bill Daley

The Daley Question

April 1, 2014

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Q: I grew up in South Shore -- St. Bride's parish -- in the '50s. My Irish mother took me to the Palmer House on Fridays for their filet of sole. Those days, there were lines down the street of people waiting to get into the restaurant at lunchtime. It was served with the most wonderful tartar sauce in the world, along with cole slaw and a hard roll. Now I'm in the Denver area and with Lent in full force, I'm drooling just thinking about it. I have searched the Web to no avail, and wonder if you might have that tartar sauce recipe in your archives?

--Mary Jean Stephens, Lone Tree, Colo.

A:The Palmer House staff was terrific when I forwarded your question to them. They promptly sent the tartar sauce recipe from "The Palmer House Cook Book" that you'll find below.

"The recipe was written by Chef Ernest Amiet, the executive chef of the Palmer House at the time,'' explained an accompanying email from Stephen Henry, executive chef at the 17 E. Monroe St. landmark. "This recipe was used as far back as 1933 here at the Palmer House, the secret is using homemade mayonnaise and the addition of malt vinegar."

Ken Price, the Palmer House's public relations director, thoughtfully attached the mayonnaise recipe found in the cookbook. I've appended it to the tartar sauce recipe.

The tartar sauce served at the Palmer House was "a real crowd pleaser," wrote Price in an email. It was served, as you point out, with fish -- but that fish wasn't real sole. It was halibut, which is why the dish was titled "Palmer House Filet of Sole," Price wrote.

Why sole for halibut? Sounds a lot like the old "California Chablis" game to me. Here's the answer, also in an email forwarded by Price from Bernard Richter, a former Palmer House general manager.

"Since the tradition goes back to the 1800s, halibut had a much more secure supply line,'' Richter wrote. "Also, one would not deep fry a fine Dover sole or other version, nor could one offer it en masses at a low luncheon price."

"I remember from the early Sixties, these halibut were shipped packed in ice and weighed 50-75 pounds each,'' Richter added. "They were then 'butchered' in the separate fish kitchen and sent to the various restaurant kitchens were the individual filets were prepped (flour, beaten egg, crumbs, if I remember correctly) then fried in batches in the deep fryer."

On a busy Friday, the Palmer House would serve 5,000 portions at lunch, Richter recalled.

"Remember, 7-8 restaurants with waiting lines in the hotel plus banquet covers -- all which scrambled for the special,'' Richter wrote. "The coffee house had the longest lines and the cheapest prices, often doing 600 lunch covers."

As for that tartar sauce, Richter noted it was placed in self-serve containers and placed on the table for customers to enjoy in "unlimited quantities."

The cole slaw? It was "a traditional Wisconsin style cream style slaw, chopped very fine rather than the usual julienne version," Richter recalled.

Today, there's no "Palmer House filet of sole" on the regular menu but the dish -- and the tartar sauce -- does make an appearance at special banquets or other functions.

"We still have clients requesting the filet of sole, especially the folks that remember the coffee shop from the ''50s and 60s," Henry says.

Tartar sauce

A recipe from "The Palmer House Cook Book" of 1933, "created and tested" by Ernest E. Amiet, executive chef. Homemade mayonnaise is called for, a recipe for which is also in the book. You could, of course, experiment with jarred mayonnaise. I find the store-bought stuff a little too stiff when I make a sauce or dressing, so I tend to thin it out with olive oil or water. You may want to do the same.

Both the tartar sauce and mayonnaise recipe are given in paragraph form and not all measurements are given, neither of which is unusual for the time. But there is wording in both recipes that left me puzzled, so I consulted with Stephen Henry, the Palmer House's current executive chef. The recipe says to squeeze the juice out of the vegetables and is, to me, unclear about what is supposed to be stirred into the mayonnaise – the veggies or the juice? Henry says to stir the squeezed-out vegetables into the sauce, which is supposed to be chunky. And the mustard called for in the mayonnaise is the dry powdered English mustard, he says.

Tartar sauce: Chop fine 2 medium-sized dill pickles, 1 shallot or real small onion, a tablespoonful of capers, a few branches of tarragon and parsley and a little chervil. Squeeze out all the juice through a cheese-cloth and mix into 2 cupfuls of mayonnaise. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a tablespoon of malt vinegar for the finishing touch.

Mayonnaise dressing: One teaspoonful of mustard, a pinch of paprika, 4 yolks of eggs, 2 tablespoonfuls of malt vinegar, 1 pint of olive oil, 1 teaspoonful of salt, scant 1/4 teaspoonful of white ground pepper and 2 tablespoonfuls of boiling malt vinegar. Mix mustard, salt, paprika, and add egg yolks. Mix well and add 2 tablespoonfuls of the cold vinegar. Then add gradually the olive oil, stirring constantly with an egg beater. To finish stir in slowly the boiling vinegar.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.