Fish on the menu at new Grille in Strip District
BACKGROUND: Luke Wholey has fished all over the continent, and the Allegheny River is one of his favorite spots.
To find fish you'd want to eat, though, requires traveling farther afield. Hence, his new spot in the Strip District is called Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille — not Luke Wholey's Mad Monongahela Grille, or something like that.
Wholey — of Pittsburgh's first family of seafood, owners of the longtime Strip grocery of the same name — came by his Alaskan connection honestly enough.
“I grew up working in my family's store,” Wholey says. “As a child, my brothers had the Wholey Brothers Fish Route. I was the salesman, and I'd call all my neighbors on a Sunday night, and we'd deliver on Monday. I did that for about 10 years. My mom insisted on we raise all our own money for summer camp and hobbies, and my hobby is fishing.”
He later moved out West, eventually finding work as a fishing guide, and aboard a 55-foot commercial salmon- fishing boat, “The Sea Fury,” off the coast of Alaska. He often ended up cooking “shore lunches” for his co-workers, from the catch of the day.
After getting laid off from a construction job in Montana, he then had an idea.
“My uncle had mentioned that here was this big grill in the basement, covered in dust,” Wholey says. “He also wanted to do a salmon festival, where we'd educate people about salmon. I jumped when I heard that.”
So, he came home and started grilling fresh fish outside Wholey's grocery in the Strip. Then, Rob Sunseri, another longtime Strip grocer, approached him about an idea for a vacant space that he owned nearby.
“Rob was adamant — he didn't want a nightclub in there,” Wholey says. “A family restaurant and bar is exactly what he wanted.”
ATMOSPHERE: Few other restaurants in town are better-designed to take advantage of good weather, not to mention the lively pedestrian traffic of the Strip District. Unfortunately, we get other kinds of weather, too.
The restaurant fills a large, airy room, with high ceilings and garage doors that open almost the entire facade of the restaurant to the outside. Out front on the sidewalk is the “Shuckakaan,” a kind of mobile raw bar, beckoning to passersby.
“It's a special device my dad invented,” Wholey says. “Basically, an oyster-shucking device on wheels, which allows us to shuck 300 oysters an hour, and a display case.”
The restaurant's interior is a curious blend of styles, with the sleek, modern look of a former nightclub clashing with bright, shiny mounted fish and 3-D art collages on the walls. The tables are an inspired touch, though — giant recycled electrical-cable spindles, sanded and lacquered to a glossy sheen. Some are painted with images of tropical fish.
The staff is, if anything, a little too attentive. We had at least three servers converge on our table at various times. Others seemed to be just hanging out, as the dinner rush seemed a little smaller than expected.
MENU: If it's not clear by now, Luke Wholey is fanatical about fish. Of course, there's a limit to how fresh seafood can be for an inland city like Pittsburgh, since it has to travel a bit to get here.
“We do a lot of Alaskan salmon, Texas Gulf shrimp,” Wholey says. “New Bedford Sea Scallops — when they're fresh and chemical-free, the scallop will caramelize by itself in the pan, and you get that brown crust over the scallop.”
The menu is small, with a few nonseafood and vegetarian items, and changes daily.
“We have some standard items — swordfish, sea scallops, Gulf shrimp, yellowtail from Japan,” he says. “Then, there's seasonal items like Blue Crabs. Tonight, we've got Florida pompano, which isn't always available. We had strawberry grouper recently.”
Oysters ($2), from Blue Points, Conn., are a good place to start, served unadorned with not much other than Chincoteague salts.
“It's an art form, shucking an oyster,” Wholey says. “The presentation, the brine/liquor inside — I really like that. If you shuck it right, you can maintain the brine. Personally, I don't like to put anything on them, so you can taste the ocean water. Some taste like seaweed, some like cucumbers, some are really salty. Each individual species has individual flavors.”
Not everything is as fresh as the seafood. Sauteed Grilled Corn ($4) with feta and scallions, was a good idea, but the corn clearly wasn't at its seasonal peak.
The Crab Cakes ($10) were about as good as it gets in a noncoastal city served with an orange Hollandaise sauce and parsley, They were moist and light, with a simple preparation that lets the delicate, natural sweetness of the crab stand out.
The Grilled Yellowtail ($23) features a perfectly grilled filet colored an autumnal orange with roasted red pepper, onions, corn, sesame seeds and a sweet soy rounding it out. The Blue Crab Stuffed Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon ($26) is fairly straightforward, with a light honey-mustard glaze, served with smashed, roasted red potatoes and snow peas. Of course, the element of surprise is in the flavor of fresh, wild-caught salmon, which bears little resemblance to its flash-frozen supermarket brethren.