Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille follows the family business with its own twist
Given Luke Wholey's pedigree as a fourth-generation member of one of the city's premier fish-market families, his childhood gift of a fishing rod and stints as a fishing guide and commercial fisherman, a love of seafood was practically inevitable.
But after Wholey fished the oceans of the country and the world, and spent time on a Native American reservation, he came back to Pittsburgh and started grilling salmon each day at Robert Wholey and Co. Fish Market in the Strip District. And then, he had an epiphany.
“I finally decided to try something new,” he says.
That “something new” was Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille, which he and co-owner Jason Hondros of Jeanette opened July 27 in the Strip.
Executive chef Wholey, 28, of Fox Chapel had plenty of training in toughing out the figurative slings and arrows of life, useful in running a restaurant. Having worked on fishing boats in various countries, he inevitably got seasick when working and “would get stung by jellyfish all day,” as the nets emptied their catch from overhead. Those stinging tentacles rain down along with more desirable fish.
With nets a half-mile long and 150-feet deep, that's a lot of painful stings — and a lot of fish from which to choose entrees for his predominantly seafood restaurant. With one over-arching sentiment: “I like the taste of high-quality seafood,” Wholey says.
He loves it so much, he participated in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in August in New Orleans. While he did not place among the top three seafood chefs, “I had fun and learned a lot,” Wholey says.
Returning to the restaurant, he prepares dinner entrees such as Hawaiian Red Snapper with coconut-rum cream sauce, jumbo lump-crab meat, snow peas, sweet red bell peppers, green onions and jasmine rice, for $31. Land and Sea, the most expensive entrée at $32, features an 8-ounce strip steak, three jumbo Texas Gulf shrimp, one-day boat sea scallop, smashed redskin potatoes and snow peas.
Lunch entrees include Grilled Georges Bank Swordfish with a wasabi glaze and snow peas for $16. The fish, from an area off the coast of Cape Cod, also makes an appearance on the dinner menu for $24.
Wholey's favorite fish, though, is yellowtail, which he incorporates into the Grilled Yellowtail entrée. The meal features jasmine rice, roasted red peppers, zucchini, green onions and sweet soy, for $24.
Wholey obtains seafood not only from the family business, from which his father is retired, but from other sources.
“The benefits of eating seafood outweigh any contaminants” in seafood that is caught in natural waters, Wholey says. He says one meal a month of wild seafood is safe and still enjoys fishing for fun.
Wholey is not opposed to eating or serving farm-raised seafood, but he makes farm-raised choices based on the conditions in which the fish are raised, including how many fish per gallon of water.
“They need to be responsible,” he says of fish farmers.
The Wild Alaskan Grille also serves “a ton of raw oysters” and a Bloody Mary oyster shooter for $5, which Wholey says is invigorating
But diners who want to try something outside the array of seafood will find various choices, including a grilled chicken breast for $16 and some classic Italian dishes chef Albert Romagna prepares.
Wholey and Romagna had been friendly. One day, Romagna walked into the restaurant and Wholey spontaneously asked, “Al, why don't you work here?” Romagna put in his two weeks' notice with his former employer, and is now preparing dishes Wholey calls “extremely good,” such as Chicken Parmesan with marinara sauce and linguini; and Pasta Primavera, with roasted peppers, asparagus, zucchini and pesto cream sauce, each for $16.
The main theme, though, is seafood, which the ambiance of the restaurant evokes.
Mounted fish on the walls of the Wild Alaskan Grille include a massive 650-pound blue marlin caught by local attorney Bill Miller in Oregon Inlet in North Carolina's Outer Banks. A balcony features a mounted sailfish above stained-and-varnished tables that were massive wooden spools for heavy cables. A large painted fish mural swims around a massive column, painted by artist Callie Fleming of Point Breeze.
Photographs of the city and the Wholey family adorn the walls, as do examples of contemporary art. Wholey's father, Robert Wholey III, insisted his youngest of three sons hang a 3-D collage of his life in the restaurant, Luke says. The canvas structure features various photographs, miscellany of contemporary life and a picture of a woman's kiss suspended between the jaws of a shark.
“It's such a big hit,” Luke Wholey says.
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.
Luke Wholey calls swordfish “the steak of the sea.”
“It has a really nice fat content and a really nice color,” he says.
With those qualities to recommend it, unadorned swordfish seems like a good choice. But Wholey seasons each swordfish steak, adds a wasabi glaze, accompanies it with tasty bacon-flavor vegetables, and crowns it with sweet crabmeat.
The resulting meal is richly flavorful, a finely tuned balance among the spicy wasabi and sweet agave in the glaze and the accents of fat in the fish and the bacon.
For the wasabi glaze:
½ cup crème freche
Wasabi, to taste
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup agave nectar
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
For the swordfish steak:
Olive oil, to coat the grill
1 (8-ounce) swordfish steak
Seasoned salt (such as Lawry's), to taste
½ teaspoon sesame seeds
For the vegetable-bacon base:
1 cup baby white and purple fingerling potatoes, seared
½ cup Savoy cabbage
3 strips bacon, diced, slightly browned and drained of fat
For the garnish:
Garlic butter (garlic and butter combined, to taste)
½ cup crabmeat
To prepare the wasabi glaze: Mix the glaze ingredients and set it aside.
To prepare the swordfish steak: Set the grill at a temperature just hot enough to smoke. Apply the olive oil to the grill. Season the swordfish steak with seasoned salt (See Photo 1). Grill the fish for about 3 minutes on each side, until medium to medium-well done and cooked through thoroughly (Photo 2).
Place the grilled swordfish in a broiler-proof metal pan and pour the wasabi glaze over the fish (Photo 3). Sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Place the fish under the broiler at a temperature of 550 degrees, watching carefully so the glaze forms a crust but does not burn.
To prepare the vegetable-bacon base: In a separate pan on a burner on the stove, saute the potatoes, chopped cabbage and bacon until the cabbage is wilted (Photo 4).
To prepare the garnish: In a second pan, place the garlic butter with the crabmeat and heat gently (Photo 5).
Place the vegetable-bacon mixture on a dinner plate, then place the swordfish on it (Photo 6). Garnish the swordfish with the crabmeat mixture, lemon and parsley.
Makes 1 serving.