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It’s instantly satisfying to take a utensil and crack through the crispy skin of a whole fried fish, releasing tender, flakey meat and dousing it in an accompanying sauce. Four D.C. area restaurants nail the preparation, which is ideal for sharing with a friend or date as a main course.
1331 4th St. SE
At Chloe, Chef Haidar Karoum splits a whole sea bream down the middle and uses a mound of rice to prop the fish up so it comes to the table standing at attention for dramatic effect. “It’s an under-utilized fish, and when prepared correctly, has a similar profile to flounder, with wicked fins that puff up when you fry them,” he says. To prepare the fish ($29), Karoum dresses it in lime juice, toasted cumin, coriander, black pepper, and chile de árbol. Then he dusts it with rice flour and flash fries it. The sea bream is served with a spicy and acidic salsa verde made with charred tomatillos. Chloe’s menu is global, pulling from many different cuisines. Karoum says with the fish he went for a Mexican-inspired preparation as a hat tip to his kitchen staff.
Kith/Kin at the InterContinental
801 Wharf St. SW
The whole fried red snapper ($54) arrives at the table in a curl, bathing in a sweet and tangy Caribbean-style brown stew with limes and cilantro. Chef Kwame Onwuachi, who has family in Trinidad and Jamaica, makes the sauce with fermented scotch bonnet peppers, a ginger-garlic puree, tomato, caramel, and onions. He sources the two- or three-pound snappers from the Florida Keys and marinates them in spices before dredging them in cornstarch to create the audible crunch. Sometimes servers will suggest a side such as fried plantains, jollof rice, or rice and peas to round out the filling meal.
1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean
This tiny Northern Thai restaurant in McLean does most of the work for you with its whole fried rockfish ($35–$40). Owner Tu Yutthpon Wetchapinan explains that cooks filet the fish and fry it in pieces before putting the filets back to present it whole. It’s topped with lime wedges, lemongrass, shallots, scallions, and cashews. “Some people only put peanuts, but I think cashews are better,” he says. The sauce contains fresh lime juice, fish sauce, and secret ingredients. It’s served with rice that can be used to sop up the salty, tangy juices.
1800 14th St. NW
Chef Johanna Hellrigl recommends diners ignore their utensils and use their hands to tackle her whole fried snapper ($30). She tosses the fish, which comes from North Carolina or Key West, in rice flour for ultimate crispiness. It’s served with fresh cilantro, scallions, a dipping sauce, and some salt made from kaffir lime and bird’s eye chilies. “The sauce is inspired by my favorite ingredients found through my travels in Southeast Asia,” she says. “It’s very refreshing rather than heavy.” For best results, dip morsels of the tender meat and crackling skin in the sauce, then sprinkle on some of the salt.