If you order only one dish at Whaley’s, the city’s latest seafood attraction, make it fried squash blossoms. Presented as a harmonious quartet, the edible flowers call to all the senses with their saffron hue, their gentle crackle and a filling of sweet chopped shrimp that’s improved by espelette and a swab of ginger aioli.
Limiting yourself to one dish here along the Southeast waterfront would be a shame, though, because the equals to that shareable appetizer are clams casino, rethought with racy chorizo atop the tender clams, and cigar-shaped razor clams tricked out with pickled chilies and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
All three small plates reveal a chef, Daniel Perron, 26, who knows we eat first with our eyes and whose time in the kitchens at the Oval Room, Fiola Mare and Blue Duck Tavern informs much of the cooking at Whaley’s.
Launched in May by cousins Nick and David Wiseman, who raised the local deli bar with DGS Delicatessen downtown, Whaley’s is named for a Revolutionary War-era naval officer who defended Maryland fishermen from the British. The seafood restaurant allows the business partners, both fourth-generation Washingtonians, to rekindle youthful memories of catching crabs on the Eastern Shore and family dinners at the venerable Crisfield Seafood Restaurant in Silver Spring.
Beyond a 35-foot facade of glass is a dining room made mesmeric with a bar whose tiled front is the color of sea foam, and with a mural, “Under the Sea,” created by artist John DeNapoli. His sublime school of fish includes striped bass, blue crabs, mackerel and other sustainable inhabitants of the deep blue sea.
Although the kitchen is hidden from view, the raw bar is on full display, raised in the back of the restaurant for all to see. Expect your Sweet Jesus oysters from Maryland and Olde Salts from Virginia to arrive free of grit and glistening beneath their liquor (which fans know to slurp, along with the oysters).
Repeat fishing at Whaley’s teaches customers that appetizers trump entrees. Best to make a meal of the small plates, then, including blue crab salad brightened with lemon zest, ennobled with sea urchin and garnished with tiny potato chips. Main dishes include a decent brined pork chop. But meat can’t beat Perron’s crisp soft-shell crab: craggy tempura-battered totems affixed to the plate with zesty romesco. Throw in Whaley’s sunny service, and you’ve got the dinner equivalent of a day at the beach, hold the sand.
301 Water St. SE. whaleysdc.com. No phone as of press time. Entrees, $26 to $32.