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Tim Patrick, a bartender at Wholly Mackerel, discusses wine with Jim and Lynda Silver of Manchester.

There's nothing even remotely fishy about Wholly Mackerel.

Despite the silliness in his restaurant's name, chef/owner John Sydow is apparently deeply serious about the freshness of his fish, because we found not even a hint of fishy taste as we navigated through entrees of amberjack, halibut and shellfish, plus assorted seafood appetizers.

What's more, he and sous-chef Matt Franke have managed to straddle the line between saucing and saturation, finding interesting complements for the primary seafood elements of their dishes but neither drenching them nor diluting their flavors with strong or inaccurate additions.

And from a visual standpoint, many of the dishes at Wholly Mackerel have a kaleidoscopic appeal not unlike a tropical reef. When the snowy amberjack showed up surrounded by the kelpish green of grilled, marinated asparagus, fluorescent crimson from a blood orange and a coral lavender from the unlikely source of naturally purple potatoes, it looked like a presentation conceived on someone's amazing technicolor dreamboat.

The restaurant is located in the Lafayette Center strip mall at Manchester and Baxter roads, in a space that most recently held the country French restaurant Cafe Campagnard and before that Cafe Renee.

Sydow, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who previously worked in hotel food service, got the inspiration for Wholly Mackerel on family vacations to Destin, Fla. He thus has provided the interior with a breezy feel, using pink and sea-blue tints on the textured walls, a bit of seashore art, fish upholstery on the chairs and the occasional seashell on the walls, plus staff in black with tropical teal shirts.

The menu is relatively short, with eight regular fish dishes plus a nightly special, as well as a half-dozen nonfish items with the equally silly category titles of "wholly cow," "wholly sow" and "wholly fowl." Sydow gets his fish from the local brokers Fabulous Fish and Morey's, and his insistence on freshness was in evidence on both of our visits, in one case substituting the amberjack for the printed choice of wahoo and on another scratching the signature mackerel.

The "crustacean creation" was always there, however, and again displayed a panorama of colors. At the center was a several-ounce portion of bright-white lump crab meat topped with brilliant red-orange caviar, surrounded by three grilled large shrimp and a small grilled lobster tail, with three stalks of asparagus for green and the entire tableau underscored by yellow saffron rice. The tiny caviar had unmatchable briny, salmony pop, but injected a bit too much saltiness into the dish, and at $27, it was pushing the limits of the value scale. But for a pure shellfish splurge, it satisfied the urge.

A nightly special of halibut wasn't quite as multichromatic, but it, too, had its share of color: reds from sun-dried tomato, yellows from slivered crescents of lemon peel, green from spinach stuffed into a ridged manicotti, and a rich purple-maroon confetti around the edges of the oversize plate that came from Sydow's predilection for optionally edible carnations. This was a very intelligent set of flavor combinations, with the lemon zest and sun-dried tomato forming an exotic salsa for the fish, bits of artichoke to pick up the tangy acidity, and a more neutral counterpoint from the spinach manicotti.

Even the appetizers were constructed, but not overbuilt: a ceviche of bay scallops and saku tuna in a blue martini glass had a third of the rim salted like a margarita, but the dish itself was simply mildly citrusy, flavored with kernels of sweet corn and bits of avocado, tomato and red onion. And a smoked salmon salad cleverly used the long, thin slice of salmon as the collapsible container for the mixed baby spring greens, with a light mustard dressing on top and the typical salmon accompaniments of egg, capers and chopped onion served alongside.

At eight bucks, desserts also push the "good value" limits, but they redeem themselves by being made mostly (with the usual exception of Hank's cheesecake, key lime here, of course) on the premises, and they continue the theme of elaborate presentation.

The "Bermuda Triangle" is a wedge of chocolate cake, a scoop of French vanilla ice cream and an incredibly dense sphere of chocolate ganache, served with fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, and a flourish of creme anglaise.

The wine list has only about 35 bottles, but they're well spread out among varietals and include the pleasantly thoughtful addition of five dessert wines. Overall bottle prices are $20-$75 for the reds and $18-$52 for the whites, and although 11 whites and 10 reds are available by the glass, the pricing is a little screwy, with one $48 bottle having an $11 glass price while a $50 bottle was just $10 by the glass. Wholly Mackerel also follows the unfortunate trend of calling roses "red" or "white": The McDowell Grenache Rose shows up in the former category, while the Z Gris appears in the latter.

And although service was nigh unto perfect, it was marred on one visit not by anything our server did at the table, but rather his tendency to sing loudly on his way in and out of the kitchen, which itself had a radio blaring quite audibly on one visit, and quite in cacophonic competition with the house sound system.

But the fish -- well, the fish at Wholly Mackerel has me hooked. Sydow lets fish be fish, having a great deal of creative fun with the sides, but letting the flavor of the sea take center stage. Long may he make waves!

Wholly Mackerel

403 Lafayette Center

(Manchester and Baxter roads)


Menu: Gulf Coast fish with eclectic saucing, plus a couple of beef and poultry selections.

Entree prices: Sauteed amberjack, $18; "Crustacean Creation," $27; Halibut, $26.

Atmosphere: Strip-mall space given a tasteful Gulf Coast theme with seaside colors, fish upholstery and the occasional seashell.

Wine list: About 35 choices, including five dessert wines, with bottles in the $20-$75 range and about 20 by the glass.

Hours: LUNCH: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. DINNER: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Smoking: Smoke free.

Wheelchair access: Tables are a bit tightly spaced.

Other information: This summary is evolving. If there's something you'd like to see included in or omitted from this quick look column, please let us know.

Reporter: Joe Bonwich\E-mail:\Phone: 314-340-8133\Dining out\News and reviews for the gourmet on the go


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