Gone are the days when a simple fillet or basket of fish hogged the spotlight on menus. Chefs and diners are now hooked on whole-fish dishes that feature everything from snapper and grouper to sea bream and Alamosa bass. True, the lip-to-tip bodies have bones to contend with, and decimating a whole fish takes patience, but the result is a markedly more flavorful flesh — thanks to the preservation of the skin and bones. And a whole fish is also decidedly better for the environment and much more cost effective. Anchor yourself at one of these seven restaurants in Denver to indulge in a showboating whole-fish plate.
The yesteryear Friday night fish fry is still alive and well at Ace Eat Serve, but chef Brandon Biederman updates the old-fashioned ritual by plating a whole fish (everything from rockfish to sea bream) in all its gill-and-fin glory. The fish, usually paired with wok-tossed vegetables, changes every Friday (the only night it's served) — as does its preparation. But no matter how it's cooked (fried, steamed or grilled), we love the fact that Biederman focuses on underutilized and underappreciated fish.
501 E. 17th Ave.; 303-800-7705
At Hop Alley, Tommy Lee's superb new Chinese restaurant, there are Taiwanese, Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan and even Chinese-Muslim influences splayed across the 15-item menu. The goal, explains Lee, is to "create delicious dishes with flavor profiles that aren't common in Denver while keeping the authenticity of Chinese recipes — and updating them with different techniques and better ingredients." To that end, he installed a wood-fired grill (the kitchen uses locally sourced woods) that's uncommon to most Chinese kitchens but imparts hints of smoke and char to several of Hop Alley's dishes, including a beautifully charred Alamosa bass served whole on a metal tray splayed with grill-etched citrus wheels, papaya salad dusted with toasted rice powder and nuoc cham.
3500 Larimer St.; 720-379-8340
In addition to its lauded Jamaican jerk chicken, curried goat and beef oxtail, this unpretentious cafe with a rollicking Caribbean beat and a consistent flow of Red Stripe, showcases a trio of whole fish dishes, including a pan-fried red snapper, a Jamaican Escovitch fish topped with pickled vegetables and a deep-fried fish (pictured below), its firm but delicate flesh burrowing beneath crisped skin. The stew, named for the seductively sweet, spicy and tart medley of tomatoes, onions and peppers that swathe the fish, is jolted with enough heat to amp up your pulse.
709 W. 8th Ave.; 303-623-0013
The whole red snapper at Lola, served on a vivid yellow plate, is curled up and cocooned around fried cubes of tender flesh, although a few flicks of your fork reveal that there's meat on the bones, too. The fish is matched with herb-specked rice, refried beans, a mound of fried yams, corn tortillas and a duo of dipping sauces, including a spicy carrot mojo and a tartar sauce spiked with tomatillos.
1575 Boulder St.; 720-570-8686
Just abut everything at OTOTO is a work of artistic mastery, but it's difficult not to stand in stunned awe at the sight of the kitchen's whole fish displays. The fish changes nightly, and there's typically more than one to choose from, but the body is always either steamed and scaled with a medley of garlic, cilantro, ginger and ponzu sauce (that preparation, with grouper, is pictured below), or dusted with a light sprinkling of cornstarch and served simply with ponzu sauce and a wedge of lemon.
1501 S. Pearl St.; 303-733-2503
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: The menu at Rebel is one of the most ambitious – and successful – food syllabuses in Denver. It's the kind of menu that you can't wait to read, and the kind of food that you can't wait to eat. Part of its appeal is that the menu changes almost every day (there's absolutely no chance of menu fatigue here) and is always full of surprises. Consider the whole steelhead trout, which is currently on the menu (but might not be tomorrow), a crisp skinned marvel, bathed in brown butter, that yields crimson flesh and arrives plated with salted cod croquettes, a vibrant radish salad and a swipe of salsa verde.
3763 Wynkoop St.; 303-297-3902
Haddock gets a bad wrap, in part because of its peculiar facial features, which have often been called, well, ugly. But you can't judge a fish by its face, as evidenced by the whole haddock at Stoic & Genuine, where chef Jorel Pierce's cosmetic surgery results in splendid fish pageantry that's red-carpet ready, as least in fish tales. Pooled in a ponzu sauce and served with every part of its body intact, he dresses the fish with lemongrass butter, fresh herbs, spheres of lemon and rings of Fresno chiles.
1701 Wynkoop St.; 303-640-3474
All photos by Adam Larkey Photography.