While I may not normally host my get-togethers on a deepwater dock, I am well-versed in gathering good folks for simple food and decent drinks at my own home in downtown Charleston. So when the opportunity arose for me to host a fish fry on a beautifully situated Lowcountry dock, I happily obliged.
At our restaurant, Leon’s Oyster Shop, we make no bones about offering what is essentially picnic food: trusted, simple standards of the Southern table, elevated with a touch of the unexpected and lightened for a modern palate. We were fortunate to find a chef, Ari Kolender, who believed in the same approach to food.
We have felt, for a long time, that there was an opportunity to lighten up the Southern larder. Where some might use mayo, Ari reaches for buttermilk. Where cream might typically do the trick, he works magic with yogurt, and when a fatty, rich bite is required, it is amazing what an avocado can accomplish. All these choices are so important when dealing with what is essentially the center of our menu at Leon’s: fried chicken. A lighter supporting cast helps to lift the meal, making it bright, healthful, and wholesome. So, in preparation for our soirée, we knew we wanted to match a sinful main course—in this case Nashville-style hot catfish—with mostly vegetable-focused supporting players.
The lowly catfish is an underrated catch. The flaky, dense flesh is supreme for frying: it reminds me of summers in Kentucky, where the local Elks Lodge would host a catfish fry on Sundays. I would stuff myself full of catfish and hush puppies and then fall asleep at the table while my grandmother worked the dance floor a few steps away. For our fish fry, Ari, in a brilliant move, served that same fish in the style of Nashville hot chicken. That is to say, doused in cayenne and lard, a technique popularized by Prince’s Hot Chicken—a family-run dynasty that welcomes locals and tourists from near and far for their fiery poultry, is best avoided before a long car ride. Trust me.
The pickles Ari added to the fish, while delicious, are pure function: their vinegary innards help alleviate, if only for a flash, the persistent burn of the main course. The kale slaw he whipped up borrows flavors from afar, making for a much more interesting and umami-rich slaw that differs greatly from the mayo-laden version I recall from those Elks events. Ari’s version is considerably more craveable, and insanely healthy to boot. The carrot salad is a chilled vegetable salad that has proven quite popular on the Leon’s menu. It’s yet another hat tip to faraway lands with a touch of harissa and a scattering of bonito. Finally, the picked crab salad, lightly dressed in avocado crema, brings the flavors of the Mexican table to bear in a brilliant riff on a classic Crab Louie, the dish that has stolen the hearts of San Franciscans for years.
To drink, I opted to keep it as honest as possible: ice cold rosé and ponies of Miller High Life (“see-thrus,” as a good friend calls them), as there is no better prescription for a hot day. If you are hosting a party of your own, I suggest keeping the beers close at hand. Their minuscule package means they disappear rather quickly.
I love to entertain, both at home and at my places of business. The persistent hum of glasses clinking, people laughing, tops popping, and corks screwing (as they do) is a brilliant symphony. As we sat to dine on this gorgeous dock with this delicious spread, we raised our glasses in harmony and celebrated the Southern table. With these recipes, it is my hope you will have the chance to do the same.
Chef Ari Kolender’s Fish Fry Recipes
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