Heads and Tails

You don't need to applaud when you get the whole fish at Butterfly. Just dig in.

I'm not a commitment-phobe, but I often play one when I go out to dinner. In restaurants, I can be a notorious dilettante, coercing (OK, bullying) tablemates into ordering the appetizer-entree combination that provides for the maximum variety/least overlap, my fork twitching to sample everything that's not on my plate.

Given this tendency, it's not hard to understand why I have an aversion to ordering Cinderella-arrives-at-the-ball, dome-covered pièce de résistancedishes like soufflé, paella, and whole fish.

For one thing, they screw with the variety/volume ratio: Everyone holds back, timidly ordering a small salad or spring rolls, expecting that the main event will be a belly buster. For another, such dishes are time-consuming, sometimes requiring the much-detested "advance notice." Third, when a giant cod arrives at your table all decorated with carved lemon flowers and what have you, you wonder if maybe you should have worn special clothes and feel that you're obligated to applaud or gasp appreciatively, which violates my other prime rule of dinner-table conduct: Never applaud or gasp unless you're getting proposed to or your dining partner has successfully tied the knot in the cherry stem with his tongue.

And then you sit there, the lot of you, cutlery poised, paralyzed by the enormity of it all, by the bulging eyeballs and the tail frozen in midswish, by the thought of bones and fins that will need to be navigated around, and by the uncertainty of what lies within. It's all just a wee tad scary.

Yet there I was at Butterfly(Pier 33, near Embarcadero and Bay, 864-8999), a whole crispy-fried fish swimming toward me, resting upright on its belly, its sides scored in a diamond pattern like a grand ocean-faring pineapple. Heads turned, fingers pointed, neighboring diners murmured.

Two bites into it, I realized I'd fretted for nothing. Chef Rob Lam has created a whole-fish dish that skirts all the usual complaints. Made with Thai snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, it's a relatively small meal that doesn't require a table-clearing platter or an Olympic fish-eating team. Lam has also prepped it in such a way as to minimize awkwardness -- small diamonds of flesh pop off at the touch, yielding bite-size pieces of moist, soft whitefish. Plus, it's augmented by enough contrasting taste sensations to qualify as samples from at least two appetizers and a second entree.

The accompaniments are critical: Chow fun noodles with peppers and Chinese sausage give it a salty, meaty, starchy component; spicy Korean kimchi cleanses the palate and cuts the heaviness of both the noodles and the breaded, deep-fried fish; and the hot-sweet-sour black bean sauce is a terrific variation on a classic sweet-and-sour that hits all the taste buds the fish misses.

"The main problem with serving whole fish is that people don't know how to tackle it," says Lam. "It's too hard to eat, there's a bunch of bones that you have to get around to find the meat, and you don't know where to start. By doing a diamond cut and frying it, it makes it more pliable, more like finger food, meant for sharing."

He says the trickiest part was coming up with a way to make the fish stand up. He found that by scoring it, folding it so that the head touched the tail, and jamming it in a fryer basket, it practically saluted when it came out.

"I have to sometimes warn little old ladies though," he laughs. "It does look a little bit like a big, fried pineapple with eyes coming to your table."

 
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