Chris Hastings grew up vacationing on the South Carolina coast – helping Mom and Dad dig for oysters and clams, netting wild shrimp, and surf-casting for grouper. The Hot and Hot Fish Club owner and executive chef's free time still tends toward hunting, fishing, and grilling, so he knows better than anybody that fish fillet is a challenge even for a veteran grillmaster: Fish flesh clings to the grate, and all that heat, smoke, and flame dry out a pricey piece of seafood. The solution? Grill the whole thing. Like chicken or beef, fish tastes best cooked on the bone: When you leave the creature intact, you keep all the moisture inside. Plus, a whole fish can easily feed a big crowd and makes for a terrific presentation.
• 1 whole striped bass (2–3 pounds), gutted, scaled, and fins trimmed off
• 8 large sprigs of fresh basil, coarsely chopped
• 2 lemons, sliced thin
• Salt and pepper
• Butcher's twine
• Extra-virgin olive oil (serves 2)
An hour before cooking, take the fish out of the refrigerator to let it reach room temperature. Salt and pepper the interior of the fish, then put basil and lemon inside, and tie twine around to close it up.
Start the grill; clean and oil the grate. Right before cooking, salt and pepper the outside of the bass. (Doing this too early draws moisture from the skin, causing it to stick to the grill.) Drizzle olive oil into one hand, and rub over the fish.
Place the fish over medium-hot embers, and don't move it for 5–7 minutes. (The skin will stick at first, so fussing with it too soon will tear it.) Watch for flare-ups; if you see any, knock them down with water from a squirt bottle.
Carefully probe the underside of the fish with a spatula to make sure the skin isn't sticking. Then, with a spatula in each hand, carefully flip the fish over. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a metal skewer into the thickest part of the bass; hold for 5 seconds, then touch it to your lip. If it's slightly warm, the fish is done.
Remove basil and lemon; set on a platter. Make a light cut along the length of the fish, from gills to tail fin. With your knife, lift meat away from the middle out. Once the top flesh is removed, wriggle and pull the backbone away from the rest of the flesh left on the platter.