Looking at the dinner menu at Holley’s, it’s easy to get a little carried away. Though it's only one page, the menu is densely packed with a variety of appealing dishes for any seafood lover. Oysters on the half shell from the raw bar? Check. Ceviche and crudo? Check. Chef-driven seafood dishes? Check, too.
Though there is definitely a focus on Southern seafood, many of the preparations incorporate flavors and ingredients drawn from other cultures. You see expressions of Asian and South American throughout the menu in dishes such as the Thai-style steamed mussels, the Mexican-influenced seafood mezcal martini and the Peruvian ceviches.
Mark Holley, the chef and owner, says that he wanted his menu to be a reflection of his lifelong experience. He takes us on a journey through the culinary traditions of Kentucky, where he was raised, to those of the Old South in Georgia, where his mother is from. He highlights the style and techniques he acquired working with a Cambodian cook named Jonathan Long during his time at Pesce, as well as from those of his current staff, many of whom hail from Latin countries such as Peru, Mexico and El Salvador.
So, a meal at his restaurant, like a recent one I had when I was invited in for a tasting, might start with a Peruvian-style black ceviche made with squid ink by sous chef Alejandro Betancourt. It might dip into New Orleans and Creole cuisine with his spicy but very deeply flavored gumbo and maybe knock your socks off when you try his New Orleans-style charbroiled oysters topped with bubbling hot rosemary and garlic-infused parmesan.
Then at some point, because it’s highlighted on the menu in a blue-outlined box, and because it is wholeheartedly gushed about by the waitstaff as a must-try course, the order of Holley’s Thai-style fried snapper for two arrives.
If there was one dish on the menu that defines what the cuisine at Holley’s is all about, this is it. It’s not only a thing of beauty, presented so that the whole fish sits in an arc on the plate, but it’s also easy to eat. The flesh is pre-scored so that small chunks of fish separate easily from the bones. A light coating of corn starch gives the skin that extra oomph of crispiness that contrasts so wonderfully with the moist white flesh of the fish.
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What’s most impressive about this snapper is the way in which Holley combines Southern and Asian elements. Two dipping sauces, a Thai barbecue sauce and a red curry gastrique, enliven the dish with alternating bites of smoky, sweet and pungent. Then there are the soulful braised collard greens, which are indigenous to the South but infused with spicy fermented Korean kimchi. The final component of the dish, a Southern hoppin’ John fried rice made with black-eyed peas, then stir-fried with soy sauce and other Asian condiments, ties everything together.
There are, of course, other things to enjoy here. Holley's recently introduced a brunch menu with notable items such as the fried quail over sweet potato waffles, the Spanish seafood tortilla and a slew of other delicious-sounding plates. There's a lobster pad Thai that I'm dying to try and a mouthwatering-sounding crispy duck with green papaya salad on the lunch menu that I've added to my to-do list.
But if you haven't yet been to Holley's, or you're looking at the menu and don't know what to get, my money's on the Thai-style fried snapper for two. Order it with the Irrashimase, a ginger-pineapple gin cocktail, for added pleasure.