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Grilled mushrooms and smoked carrots with hazelnuts

Gone Fishin'

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | April 29, 2014

It’s a great time to be a pescatarian in Chicago. A tidal wave of new restaurants spotlighting the bounties of the sea have set sail—from Italian seafood-focused Nico Osteria in the Thompson Hotel to Joe Fish in River North to the Loop’s Pearl Tavern with its swanky marble-topped oyster bar.

Kinmont in River North, from Element Collective, the team behind Old Town Social, Nellcôte, RM Champagne Salon and the recently opened Leghorn Chicken, goes the furthest out to sea, with a policy of using only sustainable seafood and an emphasis on locally caught as well as lesser-known and underutilized fish. “It’s good for the oceans and good for small fishermen,” says Executive Chef Duncan Biddulph, who most recently worked at Rootstock, and before that, Lula Cafe. “It’s the right thing to do.”

He’s definitely got a point. (Perhaps the real question in these days of ubiquitous farm-to-table mantras on menus is why hasn’t sustainable seafood become more pervasive at restaurants, but that’s another story.) But all that good-for-the-Earth sentiment would be nil if it didn’t translate to delicious things on the plates. Fortunately, for the most part, it does at Kinmont.

The interior, formerly fine-dining restaurant Zealous, plays off the fishing theme with a rustic, woodsy lodge vibe that includes exposed timber beams, vintage brass chandeliers, canteens, lanterns and old framed articles of Field & Stream decorating the walls. Above, faded Oriental rugs hang horizontally from the ceiling. Lighting in both the dining room and bar is muted, giving them a nice, warm glow (take note, first-time daters).

As with many of the other new seafood spots around town, oysters play a prominent role at Kinmont, which features a rotating selection of four—two from the East Coast and two from the West—to choose from. Judging from the number of empty crushed ice-filled platters I saw in the dining room and at the bar, I’m not the only one who enjoyed the perfectly shucked briny beauties that only needed a gentle nudge to release them from their shells. I could taste the oysters’ merroir—that’s terroir but for oysters and, yes, this is a thing now—which has as much to do with their freshness as it does their origin.

From there, your meal can go in a couple of different directions depending on the size of your party and your fellow tablemates’ thoughts on sharing.

For larger groups, Kinmont offers a For the Table portion on its menu—other sections include Raw & Chilled Seafood, Starters, Seafood Platters, Vegetables & Grains, Catch of the Day and Mains—including (meat-lovers, you’re not ignored) a 24-ounce grass-fed rib-eye as well as the Field & Stream, which features a changing whole fish with a smattering of vegetables. At the bar, I spotted a group of four enthusiastically devouring a sizable arctic char. And the lively discussion between them and the bartender about sustainable seafood is something Kinmont’s owners hope happens on a regular basis.

If head-to-tail fish eating isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other options. If you choose to eat tapas-style—really, is there any other way of eating these days?—servers do a good job of pacing out the meal.

Biddulph knows his way around a smoker, as his smoked lake trout dish proves. A riff on bagels, lox and cream cheese, the dish has a schmear of cream cheese from cult favorite Zingerman’s on the plate topped with lightly smoked trout pieces and bits of savory shortbread, cucumber and red onion.

I also like what smoking does to the shrimp that are part of the escarole salad garnished with crumbled housemade onion crackers and pea-shoots that are cut to order in the kitchen. Even carrots get a flavor upgrade from time spent in the smoker. Or, as one of my dining companions said, “I’m a big fan of smoked meat, and, as it turns out, now, apparently I also like smoked veggies.”

Nonsmokers will enjoy the clean, pure flavors of the Skuna Bay salmon in the tartare dish partnered with finely chopped cornichons and shallots, and held together with mustard. Grab one of the crispy crackers and pile it on.

Sardines, the Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world at restaurants, get plenty of respect at Kinmont. Here, they’re roasted and paired with crunchy kernels of puffed rice, ribbons of spiced butternut squash and black garlic. This is the dish with which Biddulph often gifts tables. “I’m hoping I can change people’s opinion on sardines,” he says. I’m betting with this dish he can.

Eggs are something I never order when out for dinner, but I’m glad I did at Kinmont. The soft-scrambled eggs get their creamy texture from creme fraiche and a lot of slow and meticulous stirring in the kitchen. Add in pieces of smoked Lake Superior whitefish, a smattering of roe and minced chives, and this humble breakfast staple is ready for prime time.

The hands-down winner at my table though was the Rushing Waters trout from the Catch of the Day menu section. The butterflied skin-on fish was simply prepared with a bit of brown butter, capers and parsley. Its plating was even simpler with just a lone sprig of parsley and lemon half. From the first bite, it was obvious it didn’t need any additional adornment.

But it’s not all smooth sailing at Kinmont. While the Laughing Bird shrimp—one of the few farmed shrimp that are actually sustainable—in the squid ink spaghetti dish were tasty, the pasta was tough. Parker House rolls had a textural problem too—stiff rather than fluffy—and left a greasy film on your fingers. French fries looked appetizing in their copper mug container but lacked salt. And while the wine list has some unique, well-priced offerings, how about including the country of origin?

Problems aside, Kinmont shows plenty of promise—both in the food it’s serving and the message it’s trying to deliver. “A cow is a cow is a cow,” says Biddulph. “With fish, every one is different, and you have to play around with them to find the best cooking, seasoning and complementary flavors. That’s why I find them so interesting.” And, it seems, we do too.

Kinmont
419 W. Superior St.
312.915.0011

Open for dinner nightly
Starters, $7-$16
Seafood Platters, $95-$195
Mains, $13-$26
For the Table, $40-$70

Cheers!

Bar manager Jason Brown has put together an intriguing cocktail list, including the Genuine Hope, a mix of Lillet Blanc, Punt e Mes, Scrappy’s cardamom bitters and housemade rhubarb bitters.

Top Chefs
Be on the lookout for a series of pop-up food and drink events with big-name guest chefs at Ampersand, Kinmont’s private space that includes its own kitchen and bar.

Fish Tale
Attention, anchovy-lovers: Biddulph is in the process of curing ocean smelts in the style of the sought-after white anchovies from Spain. Look for those to make their debut very soon.