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.
"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.
Wholly Mackerel's meat and poultry dishes, soups and salads were seasoned correctly. This may seem odd but actually makes sense, because the cook who works the fish station probably does not bake the chicken, grill the meat, fill the stockpot and make the salad dressings. A mixed-grill entrée, for instance, included a medium-rare six-ounce filet mignon with a nicely charred crust. On the same plate, half a game hen was delicately perfumed by lemon slices tucked under its crackly browned skin.
Other dishes were appealing, too. Turtle soup, which resembled a Creole gumbo, gave off a constant mild heat, like glowing embers. A ceviche "martini" contained dime-sized scallops, sushi-grade tuna, diced avocado, bits of red bell pepper and a kick of fresh ginger. The raw seafood is "cooked" by the acidity of the lime-juice marinade.
Desserts at Wholly Mackerel are flamboyant, colorful and achingly sweet. The blueberry and Key-lime cheesecakes are whipped up taller than Bill O'Reilly's ego. The restaurant's signature dessert begins with a basket shaped from a sticky mixture of ground macadamia nuts and honey. The fragile basket is irresistible on its own, and it's over the top when filled with ice cream and berries.
Restaurants along Florida's Gulf Coast attract such a peculiar mix of tourists, locals, couples and businesspeople that it's sometimes hard to tell whether a place wishes to be considered upscale and trendy or casual and family-oriented. This dichotomy is evident at Wholly Mackerel, too. The customers, for example, observe no discernible dress code. The servers are career professionals, one or two of them recruited from Malmaison. But they seem, well, like mackerel out of water. They sport seafoam-green oxford shirts as they crumb the table. They shoot the breeze with customers as they carry out the stuffy ritual of wine presentation. But in fusing the friendly with the formal, the essentials must always be retained. Extra place settings should be removed when a party is seated. Customers should not be expected to refill their own wine glasses. Everyone at the table should be served at the same time.
Yet rarely have we seen a team so eager to set things to rights. On our first visit, for instance, both of our entrées were whisked back to the kitchen before we had even tasted them. Our server said he could tell by looking at my snapper that it wasn't cooked through, and he replaced my companion's wahoo because it would have cooled off while the new snapper was being prepared. We predict that the kitchen will correct the seasoning and that the waitstaff will get back to basics. Regrettably, though, we're stuck with the restaurant's goofy name.
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