A’s List: There’s a bounty of seafood excellence at these Chicago restaurants
By Audarshia Townsend
Don’t ever let anyone tell you Chicago’s not a great place for seafood. It’s abundant—scratch that—overflowing with some of the best seafood restaurants offering dishes as fresh and inventive as what you’ll find on the coasts. Throw in the creativity factor, from Japanese robata grilled fish to a soulful seafood boil to the “Po'Man's Seafood Tower,” and you won’t even miss meat.
Here are some of our favorite spots around town.
Celebrated chef Michael Kornick and long-time business partner David Morton opened this nautically themed eatery in the heart of Lakeview. When Fish Bar opened in 2011, it was a far cry from their fine-dining pedigree (the award-winning MK), yet it was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. One of the great selling points here is that the seafood is sustainable, wild caught and responsibly farmed. Of note on the menu is the grilled fish BLT (which diners have a choice of ordering salmon, ruby trout or whitefish), as well as Gulf shrimp tacos and smoked whitefish spread that comes with bagel chips.
Another Lakeview gem, Half Shell has been around since 1968 in its same lower-level digs. Honestly, it hasn’t changed much and that’s what its biggest fans love about it. Whether it’s after work or a Cubs game, they come for the king crab legs and everything else they can get steamed, grilled or fried on a shell. Those who cannot make up their minds should order the Thirty Two Pointer, a heaving platter of fried shrimp, frog legs, smelts, ocean perch and clams. Not a fan of shellfish? The whole red snapper is marinated in garlic butter, grilled and served with fries.
With Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods, executive chef Brian Jupiter pays homage to his great aunt, whose Louisiana home, right outside of New Orleans, was a place he visited often during childhood. The interior is sparsely decorated with vintage accents of Southern living, from reclaimed porch chairs on the upper level to an imprint of New Orleans-based Dixie Beer on the exposed brick wall. The menu, of course, is New Orleans inspired with char-grilled oysters, crab-stuffed shrimp, gumbo, fried chicken and po'boys. There's also the "Po'Man's Seafood Tower," which serves two to three people and consists of shrimp, oysters, crawfish, catfish, hush puppies and crispy potatoes.
No doubt Chicago’s a phenomenal steakhouse town, and to set Maple & Ash apart, executive chef Danny Grant wood-fires steaks, seafood and vegetables. Of note is the signature seafood tower—which is a necessity if you want the full experience here. Oysters, scallops, Maine lobster, wild Alaskan king crab, black tiger prawns and more are fire roasted in the hearth and finished with garlic butter and chili oil. And, if there are leftovers, the server will toss them in house-made pasta at your table.
Ocean Prime is famed restaurateur Cameron Mitchell's first restaurant in Chicago. Estimated at 12,350 square feet with a spectacular view of the Chicago River, the sprawling seafood-forward steakhouse is on the second floor of The Shops at LondonHouse. Decadent standouts include choices like white truffle caviar deviled eggs, blackened snapper and a Florida grouper with crispy garlic potatoes. It’s definitely an upscale experience, yet for those looking for discounted fare, Ocean Prime offers happy hour 4-6pm Monday through Friday. Guests get half off on all appetizers, sushi and oysters in the lounge. On Sundays, the restaurant offers a special two-course surf & turf menu with an eight-ounce filet and choice of “surf” and side.
Porto pays homage to fishing villages and rural hamlets along the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Galicia. It aims to showcase wine, fish and conservas (gourmet tinned seafood) from this region. For the menu, chef Marcos Campos—who is originally from Spain—offers forward-thinking dishes utilizing open-flame cooking. Guests may choose from the five- or 10-course tasting menus (which update seasonally) or a la carte. A 32-seat chef’s island is flanked by the first of two wood-burning hearths that bring the kitchen as close as possible to the guests, breaking down the barrier between those making the food and those consuming it. Chefs also act as servers, presenting their dishes directly to diners. There is also caviar service.
The robata grilled seafood is a big draw for this Japanese-focused restaurant that’s directly across the street from Rick Bayless’ mini-empire of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco. Guests will certainly find that Roka Akor holds its own, especially if they decide to go the omakase route. That’s a progressive, Japanese tasting menu and it consists of a selection of sashimi and maki rolls, plus items like robata-grilled Diver sea scallops, roasted king crab, yuzu miso-marinated black cod and prawns.
First came RPM Italian. Then came RPM Steak. So, it was natural for RPM Seafood to follow. With the latter, Lettuce Entertain You has gone all the way out, aptly situating the restaurant directly on the Chicago River. A seafood lover's paradise, RPM promises a premium experience, offering some of the world's best catches for a very well-heeled clientele. Menu highlights: crudo and tartare; seafood towers; a bone-in swordfish steak; charcoal-grilled black bass with Moroccan spices; and an update on an old Chicago classic, the Peekytoe Crab de Jonghe with garlic butter and espelette. The massive, 11,000-square-foot space can accommodate a lot of star gazing: Inside seats 350 guests.
West Town has an authentic soul food restaurant in Soule, a tiny, no-frills, BYOB establishment on the Chicago Avenue strip that also includes Beatnik, Funkenhausen, Roots and Porto. The restaurant is only a few miles down from United Center, making it convenient for an early dinner. It’s an especially favorite stopover for hip-hop stars and professional athletes looking for a home-style meal with a soulful soundtrack. Best bites: jerk shrimp, shrimp and grits, and blackened catfish with dirty rice.
Seafood boils had been trending for a couple of years before Yasmin Curtis decided to throw her hat into the pot with Two Fish. Located in Bronzeville, the comfy, yet vibrant BYOB spices up the concept with original “secret” seasonings, a soulful approach and lines out the door every weekend. Diners choose from five different seasonings and five different types of seafood, including king crab legs, lobster claws and shrimp. For those wanting less messier options, there is also gumbo, a fried lobster tail basket, fried catfish and calamari.
See previous A's List columns right here.