Whole fish is a show-stopping, flavorful adventure for some diners. For others it’s a frightening misadventure of food that stares back at you or threatens to choke you with fins and bones.
Chefs who love to cook and serve whole fish are finding creative solutions to appeal to both groups.
“Any time you cook something on the bone, it is more flavorful,” said Chef Haidar Karoum of Chloe in Washington, D.C.
On the menu at Karoum’s fine dining restaurant, which is inspired by his Lebanese heritage and travels around Western Europe and Southeast Asia, is a crispy whole sea bream served with steamed jasmine rice and tomatillo salsa verde. To make things easier for diners who aren’t confident about eating whole fish, Karoum’s culinary team scores the fish on a diagonal to the bone before cooking it.
“Once it's cooked, pieces of the fish come off easier when the diner is eating,” Karoum said.
Similarly, at the Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt Washington, D.C., making whole fish easier to eat starts in the kitchen. Chef Adam Howard and his culinary team are currently rotating serving whole red snapper and royal bass. Before serving, the team removes the bones — the main obstacle for most of their diners — and stuffs the fish with an aromatic filling of fennel, tarragon, Meyer lemon, thyme and chives. They’ll also remove the head and tail upon request.
At Osteria Cal Mare, a coastal Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, chef Adam Sobel addresses the challenge of whole fish by serving up a pasta-wrapped Mediterranean branzino that is presented whole and then cut and finished tableside.
Instead of a traditional salt-crusted whole fish, Sobel wraps sheets of heavily salted pasta dough around the fish — a technique that he says helps season the fish correctly and produces a perfectly cooked and easy to de-bone fish. As with a salt crust, the pasta wrapping is not eaten.
Chef Jeremy Sewall, owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 restaurants in Boston, loves selling whole fish and offers it on the dinner menu every day, usually grilled but sometimes fried.
“More and more people are eating whole fish, so much so that it has become a staple on our menus,” Sewall said.
Right now at Row 34 he is serving a whole grilled bronzini with roasted cauliflower, Meyer lemon butter, fingerling potatoes and parsley salad.
One of the challenges of serving whole fish, said Sewall, is consistent sizing.
“To find 20 to 50 fish of a similar size to offer as an entrée is not always easy,” he said. “We are fortunate enough to work with a fish vendor who will spend extra time selecting the correct size for us.”
The other challenge is making sure diners understand what they’re getting before it’s brought to the table.
“Diners in general are into different dining experiences and digging into a whole fish is exactly that,” Sewall said. “Making sure our guests understand it is a whole fish with bones, head and all, is important to the experience."
The experience of whole fish is also key at Kai Yang in Montclair, N.J., which specializes in offering Thai dishes such as crispy whole red snapper with chile sauce, from owner Sheree Sarabhaya’s native Bangkok, Thailand.
“Presentation-wise, it is more visually interesting and impactful serving whole fish,” Sarabhaya said. “The process of frying the whole fish renders a more crispy outside and locks the moisture inside, keeping it tender.”
While serving the whole fish doesn’t present any challenges to the kitchen, Sarabhaya says some customers don’t like the head on and prefer a fillet.
But the crispy whole snapper isn’t for customers who want a fillet; it’s meant for those who want to eat every part of the fish.
“Some customers actually like the eyes or cheeks,” she added. “They enjoy the whole fish.”
Correction: Nov. 22, 2019: This article has been updated to include correct pronoun use in quote attribution for Sheree Sarabhaya.