Chicago's Top Lenten Dishes
Fresh off the gluttonous revelry of Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, Lent is a season to reel things in. And by "things," we mean meat. That's why these next few weeks are the time to steer towards lighter seafood and fish dishes, which both abound throughout Chicago restaurants. And in case you were worried about it, you'll be pleased to find that Chicago steakhouses actually serve some of the best fish and seafood too.
Shrimp at Erie Cafe: This longstanding River North bastion is known for its steaks and chops, but soon you'll be regarding it for its stellar shrimp. Of the many great fish and seafood items here, like the crab cakes and baked clams, the shrimp stands supreme. Most notably because there are so many versions of it done so well. This is where the famous Shrimp de Jonghe can be tasted in all its glory; the classic Chicago dish is a casserole of whole peeled shrimp immersed in garlic-scented breadcrumbs. There's also French fried shrimp, or grilled shrimp a la George.
Salmon at III Forks Prime Steakhouse: Another prime example of a steakhouse with serious seafood panache, III Forks Prime Steakhouse has particularly extraordinary salmon dishes you'd be wise to order. Along with those sterling steaks, the seafood and fish dishes hold their own, as evidenced by dishes like Atlantic salmon with tarragon chimichurri, or a salmon Caesar salad that takes a classic to a savorous new level.
Seafood cocktails at Mastro's Steakhouse: Steak may get top billing at this meaty Mecca in River North, but don't overlook the pristine seafood dishes scattered throughout the mammoth menus. Chief among them are the seafood cocktails featured on the appetizer menu. You've got a few options here, all of which are insanely fresh, light, bright, and bursting with oceanic flavor. There's the classic plump shrimp cocktail, along with a Dungeness crab cocktail and even lobster cocktail. And this is just the tip of the seafood iceberg at Mastro's.
Mussels at Hopleaf: You'd be remiss in talking about seafood staples in Chicago without mentioning the famed mussels at Hopleaf. Andersonville's iconic Belgian beer bar is home to some of Chicago's best shellfish, especially when they're steamed in buttered Belgian beer and served in a crockpot the size of a Mini Cooper. They're served with the most addictive crispy frites and aioli. There's also warm, chewy bread that is perfect for dunking and sopping up all that precious seafood elixir.
Nigiri at Momotaro: The seafood at the West Loop's quintessential Japanese restaurant couldn't be any fresher and more perfect if you were dining oceanside in Japan. The best way to taste that almighty freshness is with Momotaro's nigiri, an unparalleled rendition of some of the ocean's crown jewels, adorned simply with elegant accoutrements and finesse. Try the salmon belly with korashi miso and battera, the smoked aji with 1,000 year-old cypress, or for the daring, the Kawahagi sailfish served with its liver.
Lobster "escargot" at Chicago Cut: One of the most lavish steakhouse seafood dishes in town is also one of the most unusual. Combining lobster with French technique, the clever chefs at this famous steakhouse serve tail pieces in garlic butter with melted Havarti and crostinis. It works surprisingly well, and it's a surefire hit for those squeamish about snails.
Oysters at Maude's Liquor Bar: Come for the chic pomp and circumstance, stay for the immaculate oysters. The West Loop's sultry haven, romance-oozing Maude's Liquor Bar is a fine destination for all things opulent and alluring. This is particularly true of their seafood, served up in awe-inducing seafood towers or as a la carte plates. One section of the menu to pay attention to is Maude's daily selection of fresh oysters. They've always got at least a few varieties on hand, each one perfectly indicative of their East Coast and West Coast origins, and they're some of the best in town.
Fish tacos at Antique Taco: Fish tacos may be commonplace in coastal cities like San Diego, but in Chicago they're still a rare find; good ones at least. One great find for fish taco excellence is Antique Taco, the smartly modern taqueria that enhances the taco experience with each and every menu item. Their version of a fish taco is a tempura-fried fish fillet with sriracha, tartar sauce, smoked cabbage, scallions, and sesame. They even have a garlic shrimp taco made with cauliflower elote, crispy kale, and basil-avocado salsa.
Prawn heads at mfk: Throughout the killer seafood-heavy menu at Lakeview's Spanish-accented mfk., there's something wholly unique you need to try. While some dishes skew complex, the crunchy prawn heads succeed in their bold simplicity. They may look a little unnerving, but one crispy bite and you'll be grasping for more, especially when dredged through romesco-like Salbitxada.
- Matt Kirouac