Flying Fish

Goofy name aside, Wholly Mackerel has a promising future

Corny puns and double-entendres have infiltrated pop culture more insidiously than the arrival of celebrity restaurateurs such as Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz. "Cannes Goods," quips the headline of an article on the Cannes film festival. "Fan Club," reads the lame tagline of an ad for Hunter ceiling fans. And here's a real knee-slapper from a food magazine: "Cutting-Edge Chopped Salads." Such banal wordplay invariably elicits groans, not belly laughs. Thank goodness these stale titles have a shelf life as brief as those of the publications in which they appear. A restaurant's name, on the other hand, is here to stay.

I believe we can all agree that "Wholly Mackerel" doesn't exactly have a ring to it. To make matters worse, the jeu de mots is resurrected on the menu, which perversely categorizes the entrées into "wholly cow," "wholly fowl," "wholly sow" and so forth. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the restaurant's name is that it's memorable.

Wholly John and Vonda Sydow own Wholly Mackerel, housed in the strip-mall space formerly occupied by Café Campagnard. She manages the front of the house, and he shares the kitchen duties with chef Matt Franke. The men have enviable credentials: Sydow trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and Franke studied at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park and was executive chef at Malmaison before its recent change of ownership.

John Sydow of Wholly Mackerel
Jennifer Silverberg
John Sydow of Wholly Mackerel

Location Info

Map

Wholly Mackerel

481 Lafayette Center
Ballwin, MO 63011-3943

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Manchester/ Ballwin

Details

Ceviche "martini" $11
Turtle soup $5
Mackerel $18
Snapper en papillote $22
Macadamia cup with fruit & ice cream $8
Key-lime cheesecake $5

636-256-3949

403 Lafayette Center (Manchester Rd.)

"There are two ways to make money in this business: quantity or quality. We chose quality. We don't want to turn and burn," explains Franke, referring to the feeding-trough practice of churning out haphazardly prepared food in order to turn tables quickly. The restaurant aims to serve Gulf Coast seafood, including the spicy dishes of New Orleans, the good-ol'-boy cooking of the Florida Panhandle and the tropical Floribbean cuisine of Naples and the Keys. But the Gulf Coast label seems to be mainly a marketing gambit, because the chefs roam all over the map with such ingredients as Maryland crab, California caviar and Pacific yellowfin tuna.

Franke insists that mackerel is a Florida fish and thus falls under the umbrella of Gulf Coast fare. Culinary encyclopedias call that notion into question, but no matter -- Franke is correct in claiming that few restaurants handle this handsome fish. The French word for mackerel is maquereau, or "pimp," named for its flashy, jewel-toned scales. Franke and Sydow offer "wholly mackerel for two," but the kitchen is happy to prepare a single portion. Mackerel, an oily fish, pairs well with tart sauces such as gooseberry, cranberry and rhubarb. According to Wholly Mackerel's menu, the fish is served deep-fried, with "toasted garlic butter" on the side. We're not sure what that might be, but it didn't arrive with our order. And the mackerel was so lightly breaded that the chef might as well have been dusting for fingerprints. It was plated with buttery saffron rice and smoky spears of grilled asparagus. The fish itself, though, had little flavor.

The seafood at Wholly Mackerel suffers from a single, treatable affliction: lack of salt. Formally trained chefs learn in Skill Development 101 that most foods must be salted (or "seasoned") during the cooking process; salt added at the table lies on top of the food but does not permeate it. Ideally, diners should not even be aware of the salt in a dish. In fact, most people aren't sure what's missing when they taste, say, rice or soup or biscuits that haven't been salted during cooking or baking -- the food simply tastes bland to them. Most seafood dishes at Wholly Mackerel are only lightly sauced, if at all, so the absence of seasoning is more noticeable. The amount of salt each diner prefers is subjective, of course. But most of the dishes we sampled tasted unsalted, not merely undersalted.

Wholly Mackerel's coconut shrimp is a kissing cousin of Outback's lowbrow "bloomin' onion." The shrimp wear oily jackets of shredded coconut and are served with a sweet yogurt-lime dipping sauce that may soon unseat the Key-lime cheesecake to claim its rightful place on the dessert list. Yellowfin tuna is a more urbane appetizer. It's prepared by searing the fish, rolling the fillet in crushed black peppercorns and slicing it lengthwise. The baconlike strips of tuna are attractively arranged in a starburst pattern atop spinach greens, with beads of golden caviar mounded in the center. But the hotheaded peppercorns trounced the docile flavor of the unseasoned tuna.

The chefs offer several innovative dishes. One of them is wahoo, a fast-swimming Pacific game fish. It's rarely seen on menus but makes for good eating if you can catch it. The firm fillet glistens with a lovely blood-orange-and-pomegranate vinaigrette dotted with coral-colored pomegranate seeds. They have a delicate gelatinous texture similar to that of salmon roe. But with only a drizzle of the thin dressing spooned over the fish and no trace of seasoning in the fillet, the wahoo was as dry and dreary as canned tuna.

Both specials we sampled were inventive, but they had a salt deficiency as well. Red snapper en papillote (French for "in paper") was baked inside a parchment-paper pouch with baby carrots and shingles of potato. This technique traps steam inside the package, cooking the fish gently and retaining its moisture. The snapper had the soft, curdlike texture of creamy scrambled eggs. But without salt it was as insipid as baby food. A Cajun special one evening turned heads at every table. A flaming-orange crayfish parked atop the fillet was a dramatic, well-chosen garnish.

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