Man Overboard

Don't be thrown by the strip-mall setting -- Wholly Mackerel is seafood heaven

Wholly Mackerel

403 Lafayette Center, Ballwin

Pan-fried frogs' legs $8
Bouillabaisse $28
Prosciutto-wrapped halibut $24
Roasted duck breast $23
Chocolate-chocolate cake $6

636-256-3949. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 5-9 p.m. Sun.

I promised myself two things while visiting Wholly Mackerel, a superb little seafood restaurant tucked into the corner of a Ballwin strip mall: to refrain from all of the obvious, groaner puns I could conjure up and to suspend judgment about the restaurant's location.

The latter promise was simple to keep once I entered John and Vonda Sydow's restaurant. As my friend noted after we were seated in the dining room and the host had placed starched white napkins in our laps: It's easy to forget that you're dining in just another suburban mall. Between the textured salmon- and mint green-painted walls, wood plank ceiling, white tablecloths and napkins folded into crown shapes, the mood is neither slack nor stuffy. The Sydows transformed the space into a vibrant, breezy restaurant that strikes a balance between the casual Florida seafood eateries that inspired the couple's venture and the elegance diners expect when dropping $20 or more on a main course.

At those prices, of course, you expect to be served superior seafood. But nothing prepared me for the sublime, clean taste of the halibut. A thick fillet was wrapped in a thin skin of prosciutto, sautéed and then baked, allowing the saltiness of the cured ham to permeate the mild fish, adding a layer of flavor as well as texture. The sauce, made with white wine, lemon and capers, melded the dish into a coherent, beautifully balanced whole. And that was just the first bite. Halfway through the entrée, which was accompanied on the plate by spears of asparagus and a mound of garlic mashed potatoes, the kitchen's vision was clear: Build a sauce to complement the fish; don't salt the hell out of it; emphasize its delicacy and freshness.

Sydow says his relationship with his local purveyor, Fabulous Fish, allows him to order small quantities several times a week, and to serve fish you won't find in other restaurants, such as king mackerel. And he's fussy about what comes through the door. The restaurant's signature turtle soup was unavailable on one visit; our waiter explained that the turtle meat hadn't been up to snuff that day. (Sydow, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a former food-and-beverage honcho at the Radisson and Adam's Mark hotels, later told me it had arrived "looking like it was hit by a truck.")

Members of the kitchen staff cut the seafood themselves. Besides the obvious (uniformly lovely fillets and steaks), the hands-on method makes available all parts of the fish -- essential when you're making a bouillabaisse. From its rustic origins as a one-pot Provençal fisherman's meal that made use of the less saleable fish among the catch (or so the story goes, anyhow), the dish has evolved into a more complicated creation, mostly because of the timing and ingredient-coordination involved. Like gumbo, there are many bouillabaisse permutations (some recipes don't even call for fish!), but the basics boil down to: a variety of fish, plus onions, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, saffron and parsley in a broth, usually water and white wine. Scorpion fish, hogfish, John Dory and all the other fish found in the waters around Provence aren't readily available from local purveyors, but one can still make quite a decent bouillabaisse in St. Louis. Sydow uses mostly halibut and mahi-mahi -- along with a split lobster tail, four crab legs, a few large shrimp and a handful apiece of mussels and oysters. Unlike more traditional versions, in which the stew is ladled over thick slices of bread, a small loaf of warm bread drenched with clarified butter is served on the side -- much better for sopping up sauce without having the bread disintegrate in the bowl.

During two and a half years in operation, the Sydows have tinkered with the modus operandi some. One welcome alteration: Somewhere along the line they dropped goofy menu titles like "wholly cow" and "wholly fowl" in favor of simple labels. In addition to the eleven seafood entrées, a couple of specials and two pasta dishes featuring seafood, Wholly Mackerel offers land-based fare: three beef dishes (including liver and onions), a pistachio-encrusted chicken breast and a veal chop. There's also a marvelous roasted duck breast that was tender, juicy and devoid of the fattiness that can plague such a dish. Served with a pear compote and mashed potatoes, it provided a fine first taste of autumn. Only one quibble: The mashed potatoes weren't as warm as the rest of the plate.

When I was growing up, my father would often order frogs' legs when he took us out for dinner. I don't know if they tasted as glorious as the ones served at Wholly Mackerel, but if they did I was really missing out on something special. Available pan-seared as an appetizer or sautéed as an entrée, they're served atop a hillock of basmati rice and finished with a luscious sauce featuring garlic and heavy cream.

While they were ridding the menu of puns, the Sydows also expanded their wine list. It now features about four dozen bottles, most of which are priced from the mid-$20s to the mid-$40s. About half are available by the glass, mostly in the $6 to $8 range. Sadly, gone are the rosés. (It's been a warm fall so far!)

If you've been careful not to fill up too much on the warm loaves of bread, you might have room for dessert. Hank's supplies five cheesecakes; several desserts are made on the premises, including "Bermuda Triangle," a wedge of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a mixture of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries topped with a rich crème anglaise. Remarkable-sounding, yes, but I opted for a seemingly plainer chocolate-chocolate cake that tasted anything but plain: dense, rich, layered and slathered with a creamy-smooth chocolate frosting.

Service is nothing short of perfect. It's clear the waitstaff shares the Sydows' passion for the restaurant. Dishes are described with evident enthusiasm, flatware is quickly replaced between courses, appropriate wines are recommended with aplomb. All that should be expected, of course; still, I am constantly reminded how sloppy and casual service can be at other restaurants.

Wholly Mackerel is the "I know a little place" kind of restaurant diners like to quietly take their friends and recommend in hushed tones, promising that their secret won't spread far. But promises are meant to be broken, especially if you're hooked on great seafood.

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