I’ll say this at the start: Don’t read all of this review. Put down the paper, go to Hooked (ground floor of the Carroll Building, northeast corner of East Bay and Market) and order the crispy Brussels sprouts.
You’ll be so (forgive me) hooked, you’ll be sure to return — frequently. Before long, you’ll have sampled most of the menu and the rest of this review will have done its job without you even having read it. What a win.
But perhaps that’s just how things go at Hooked. More than one friend was quick to lend their praise to a menu item but unable to offer any further suggestions — what they ordered on their first visit was so good they’ve been unable to pass it up on subsequent stops. The shrimp salad roll, in particular, came so strongly recommended that I worry the FDA might start to regulate it as an addictive substance.
Thus I return to the Brussels sprouts. They have joined my list lap-’em-up luminaries as Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake, the salade Lyonnaise at Bistro Toulouse or the dollar-menu spicy cheese-bean-and-rice burrito at the Taco Bell. Your list may vary (especially on that last one, but trust me — it’s good), but we all have one — the sort of food that the mere thought of can trigger terminal-stage cravings.
If you’re still reading (again — stop! Just go eat them!), they are the ideal Platonic form of Asian flavor, soy and sesame and just the right level of char on the sprouts, all resting in a generous dollop of tangerine-tinted yum-yum sauce. (Yes, the menu calls it “spicy aioli.” It’s a classy place.)
Hooked, however, is not an Asian restaurant; it is the successor to longtime East Bay Street seafood shack The Noisy Oyster, both geographically and (with decided remove) spiritually. It’s also a cousin to Shem Creek’s Saltwater Cowboys, and — in the best of ways — it shows. Of course, the late, great Noisy Oyster felt more “The Frying Dutchman” than fine dining — brass lamps, life-size decorative sharks, marlinespike throughout, that sort of thing. Yet the heaps of fried fish, shrimp and oysters it served up were always more than the stereotypical reckless marriage of thick batter, hot oil and the fruits of the sea.
The Boals family standards were higher than that then and they remain so today. Hooked still devotes a sizable portion of the menu to brown-and-crispy standards, and why not? You can still sit down and order platters of fried seafood flanked with fries and a great heap of cole slaw; you’ll find the seafood fresh, never greasy, and the result head-and-shoulders above the deep-fried assembly-line tourist chow prevalent in the neighborhood. But there’s a lot of menu beckoning beyond the classics — and that is where your taste buds should explore.
I return to the sprouts. They’re something of a signature dish for chef Thad Stuckey, longtime executive chef at O-Ku. He’s brought many of the fun, delicious elements that made the King St. Japanese spot so extremely popular to Hooked, creating what he calls “new Southern seafood.” It’s in the little things — the tender fried calamari that once would have been served with red pepper jelly but is now accompanied by sweet East Asian shishito peppers and spicy lemon aioli. Red rice is still available, but pineapple rice or herbed farro have taken the lead. The salmon comes with beets and bok choy in a ginger vinaigrette. Poke pokes it head up on the appetizer menu, with succulent ahi tuna kissed with soy and sesame resting on seaweed salad.
Kudos to the Hooked team for putting such a fresh product at this location. The dining scene around East Bay and Market is in flux, to put it mildly; spots like SNOB, High Cotton and Amen Street are neighbors to by-the-slice pizza joints, IHOP and a wide range of tourist-trap fudge and praline shops. Hooked seems well placed to snag business from “column A” and “column B.” For casual diners, the sharp sides and starters are fully available on the lunch menu, along with a range of lunchtime-only sandwiches and wraps (like that addictive shrimp salad roll mentioned earlier).
But the place works well as a pleasant dinner choice for locals, too. Stuckey’s “new Southern” selections like snapper and sea bass would be welcome additions in more than a few restaurants with which Hooked shares a zip code, if not a price point. The tiki touches and Barnacle Bill decor have been banished — light wood floors, unfussy light grays and white for the paint scheme, restrained touches of art here and there. It’s a fine contemporary compliment to the menu’s understated Asian influences.
Further, although it can’t offer the waterfront views of its Shem Creek cousin, I was pleasantly surprised at the recent joy of eating beside Hooked’s great rollaway windows. Here the congrats go largely to our local bus fleet — while I foresaw an evening of outside noise and smoke, the newer CARTA busses passed by at a whisper. We enjoyed a long, pleasant evening meal no more than three yards away from East Bay St. traffic, and found our quiet conversation interrupted only once (and to whomever was driving that late-model blue Toyota Sienna … your exhaust system is leaking, my friend.)
Speaking of cars — locals who lament Downtown’s chronic parking issues crimping their dining-out plans take note of Hooked’s complimentary valet service on Friday and Saturday nights. For those of us accustomed to dancing the meter maid shuffle, it’s heaven sent.
Other menu notes before the time is up on this story’s parking meter: You could settle in with just a few appetizers, skipping the entree altogether. With options like the thin-sliced fried green tomatoes or the fantastic ceviche, it’s a strong option. Bites may be taken at the bar too, which features a well-proportioned drink menu that’s happily more focused on tasty than trendy. Creamy Geechie Boy grits were a fine base for delectable scallops and the standards — she crab soup, shrimp-and-grits — are all there, too. When dessert time came, being that close to The Market, I surrendered to my inner tourist and ordered the pecan brittle basket, beautiful to behold and surprisingly simple with its twists of salty and sweet. A real after-dinner winner.
With Hooked, Wade Boals and his team have found another tack on seafood dining, thoughtfully different from Saltwater Cowboys but every bit as appealing. As Chef Thad Stuckey said — “Wade knows how to cook seafood”; perhaps obvious after so many decades of Boals-family dining in our area … but considerably high praise from a fellow making dishes as strong as Stuckey does. Hooked does exactly what it says on the tin, and more — both dishes and the dining experience can get you hooked. I promise.
Just try the Brussels sprouts.