St. Stephen Protomartyr, in the heart of south St. Louis, is so proud of its Lenten fish fries they advertise in the newspaper. Red flag to a bull? Sort of. It's a larger menu than average, they serve beer and it's possible to buy a single fish taco or a shrimp, for instance, if you can't make up your mind. That's helpful for folks like me. They also have a gym-sized play area, a great idea to keep busy volunteers from falling over wandering children in a smallish space.
Actually, it's not small. It's medium-sized but it got busy witha constant line by the time I arrived at 5 p.m., and the room seemed to shrink. We had zippy, attentive table service, picking up dirty trays, wiping tables, and zooming in on floor spills like - well, like the old stereotype of a south St. Louis householder; heaven forfend that there should be anything less than perfectly clean and polished. Nice, and not obnoxious about it.
As Rachel Lippman noted on KWMU last Friday morning, there's a sense of community about the fish fries, one that our community seems to have a renewed hunger for. Yes, there are parishoners showing up for these fetes, but there are plenty of others, too - a couple of noted attorneys, ties missing, were merrily chowing down among the rest of us, including a hipster take on ZZ Top.
Cod or the catch of the day, grouper on this Friday. Cod is either baked or fried. Shrimp. Fish tacos. French fries, sweet potato fries, hush puppies, green beans almondine, slaw, homemade spaghetti. I probably have left something out, but it's that complicated. As you work your way through the line, you can see the guys in the kitcen hand-breading the fish. Also very nice.
Between my more virtuous pal and I, we did a fair amount of sampling. Baked cod was topped with a tomato relish, nice, not overcooked but not pink in the middle. The fried cod, a smaller piece (two of these is the adult dinner serving), was particularly good, one of the best I've come across, seriously crunchy and really well-drained. And the fish taco, a soft taco wrapped up beforehad, was great - maybe not San Diego great, but a fine take for a long line of diners. The loose foil held the flour tortilla, a good piece of fish, lettuce and tomato, a little salsa for a light hit of spiciness and a drizzle of mayonnaise.
Good slaw, a clear dressing rather than a creamy one, no sense that it had been made three days before, a nice tart contrast to the tender fish, and green beans that had been seasoned beyond the nuggets of almond, some minced onion, a little black pepper. The spaghetti was, of course, overcooked by some standards, just like the green beans. Perhaps at St. Ambrose on The Hill the pasta is al dente, but not in the average church basement and no sense in expecting it. But the sauce was thick and sweet and full of vegetable-y flavor, and it was far from the anonymous stuff often found in such surroundings. I would have been happier if the hush puppies had been a little more tender, but c'est la vie.
A piece of spice cake, moist and gently seasoned, with a fluffy cream cheese icing, and a dancing shark named, of couse, Sharkey, finished the meal off in style. Worth a visit, ladies and gentlemen.
St. Stephen Protomartyr
Fridays through April 11, 2014