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Halibut from GT Fish & Oyster

A Fish Tale

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | February 14, 2014

While Chicagoans’ obsession with steakhouses isn’t going anywhere soon, there’s another protein in town giving meatheads a run for their money. From the Italian seafood-focused Nico Osteria in the Gold Coast to River North’s just-opened Kinmont, with sustainable fish at its core, to the slew of oyster bars opening up all over town, Chicago restaurants are hooked on the bounties of the sea.

For Erling Wu-Bower (The Publican, Avec), chef de cuisine at Nico Osteria (21 E. Bellevue Place, 312.994.7100), working at a seafood restaurant is a dream come true. “My main source of food knowledge is fish,” says Wu-Bower. “The idea of having this candy store of fish here all the time is really exciting.”

He’s not the only one excited; just try and get a reservation at the packed Thompson Chicago hotel restaurant, which opened late last year. For the seafood on the varied menu, which ranges from bigeye tuna crudo to salt-crusted wild branzino to housemade squid ink bucatini with sardines, Wu-Bower relies on “trusted hands in ports all across the country” to procure the fish. In the basement kitchen, a tank ensures the restaurant’s lobsters are at their freshest.

While fish and shellfish have been the focus at fine dining restaurant L2O (2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773.868.0002) since it opened in 2008, Matthew Kirkley has taken the concept further since being named executive chef two years ago. Under his direction, the restaurant added a 200-gallon saltwater tank that, at the moment, houses scallops from the coast of Maine, cockles from New Zealand, spiny lobsters from Santa Barbara and geoduck clams. Kirkley acknowledges that there was a learning curve in figuring out the tank’s intricacies, but the work was worth it. “Hearing the tank’s running water in the kitchen reminds us that these are live animals,” he says. “It changes the way you think about seafood, and brings an emotional level to it.”

With its focus on sourcing 100 percent sustainable fish and seafood, the 65-seat Kinmont (419 W. Superior St., 312.915.0011), from the team behind Old Town Social, Nellcôte and RM Champagne Salon, also taps an emotional vibe. “It’s good for the oceans and good for small fishermen,” says Executive Chef Duncan Biddulph, in regard to the restaurant’s commitment to sustainable seafood. “It’s the responsible thing to do.” Partner Chris Dexter agrees: “It fits principles that make sense to us.”

In addition to seafood from both coasts, approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, Kinmont also puts an emphasis on local lake fish, such as Chicago Calumet Fisheries smoked whitefish. Additionally, he showcases lesser-known and underutilized species, referred to as “trash” fish, such as cobia, triggerfish and amberjack. A daily special called Field & Stream features “the most beautiful whole fish we can get our hands on,” says Biddulph.

While whole fish is now on the menu at GT Fish & Oyster (531 N. Wells St., 312.929.3501), that wasn’t the case when it opened three years ago. Back then, says Executive Chef Giuseppe Tentori, the idea was simply to offer diners something different, but not “reinvent the wheel.” On the menu, patrons will find plenty of old-school classics, such as stellar lobster rolls, oysters, and fish and chips. But as his guests became more adventurous, so has his menu, says Tentori. Now, in addition to seasonal items such as soft-shell crab, the restaurant offers more unusual fish, like barramundi from Australia, grilled whole fish and, soon, a variety of house-smoked fish.

As director of marketing and procurement for Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co., a supplier for many of Chicago’s top restaurants, Carl Galvan has seen firsthand the change in diners’ seafood eating habits. “The problem in the past, and our previous aversion to whole fish, was that as Midwesterners we grew up with a pretty sad selection of fish. It was either frozen or pre-packed portion product,” he says. “Now, with Chicago being a global hub thanks to [ever-increasing traffic] at O’Hare, we have access to the most pristine fish from across the planet.”

At Pearl Tavern (180 N. Wacker Drive, 312.629.1030), Executive Chef Chris Lorenz is taking advantage of that access with a menu full of seafood delicacies. As its name hints, oysters are front and center at the new Loop restaurant—just belly up to the Carrera marble-topped oyster bar for a front-row seat. But it also showcases more unusual items, such as razor clams served with fennel, trout roe and absinthe. “As diners have become more educated and their palates broadened, they’re ready to be led to more exciting eating endeavors,” says Lorenz.

Longtime local favorite Rosebud Restaurants is also diving into the seafood arena with Joe Fish (445 N. Dearborn St., 312.832.7700), scheduled to open in March. Headed up by Executive Chef Joe Farina, the restaurant, located in the former Rosebud Trattoria space, focuses on Italian and Mediterranean seafood such as zuppa di mare, which is a tomato and white wine broth filled with shellfish and served on a bed of linguine; three different whole fish preparations; and a variety of oysters.

Need more proof Chicago is hooked on fish? In May, Brown Bag Seafood Co. (340 E. Randolph St.) will begin offering seafood in a fast-casual restaurant concept with menu options such as crispy shrimp tacos with pickled red onions. “In the past, seafood wasn’t something you could get in a fast-casual environment,” says founding partner Donna Lee Bremer on her reason for creating Brown Bag. Thankfully, that’s changing. Smooth sailing, indeed.