Freshen Up Your Lenten Dining With Fish and Seafood

Fresh off the debauchery of Mardi Gras, Lent (February 18 through April 2, FYI) is a time to repent and reel in those excessive tendencies, many of which may involve meat. That's why the pre-Easter weeks are the most apt time to focus on lighter seafood and fish dishes, whether it's pristine sushi or steamed mussels. Here are some of Chicago's top fish and seafood dishes to put on your Lenten dining radar this year (and every year): 


Mussels at Hopleaf

Steamed mussels at Hopleaf: You can't discuss essential seafood dishes in Chicago without drooling over the mussels at Hopleaf. Andersonville's venerable Belgian beer hall is home to some of the city's mightiest shellfish, especially when they're steamed in butter-laced Belgian beer and served in a crockpot the size of a Mini Cooper. The crispy frites with aioli served alongside is just icing on the cake, plus the warm, doughy bread is ideal for dunking in the broth once you've already sopped up all the mussels. 

Sashimi at Japonais by Morimoto: With an iron-clad Iron Chef at the helm, you know your meal is in good hands at Japonais by Morimoto. Said chef is Masaharu Morimoto, a proven wunderkind when it comes to all things Japanese and nautical. The chef oversees a menu lush with oceanic wonders, including some of the best sushi in town. The menu is pretty massive, but you'd be remiss in coming here and skipping the sashimi, so start there. Try the bluefin tuna, the sea eel, amberjack, sea bass, Japanese mackerel, and much more. It's hard to go wrong with any of the meticulous selections coming out of the sushi kitchen here. 

Nigiri at Momotaro: One of Chicago's most red-hot openings of late is Momotaro, a Japanese Mecca in the West Loop that took off right outta the gate with some of Chicago's freshest seafood. Seriously, this stuff couldn't be any more pristine if you were dining while scuba diving. The best way to experience said freshness is via Momotaro's nigiri selections, an unparalleled interpretation of some of the ocean's finest, adorned simply with elegant accoutrements. Try the Alaskan king crab with plum moriyaki, or the Boston mackerel with white kombu, or angel prawns with Meyer lemon. 


Maude's Liquor Bar
Oysters at Maude's Liquor Bar

Oysters at Maude's Liquor Bar: Come for the glamorous pomp and circumstance (and the liquor), stay for the oysters. The West Loop's most sultry haven, Brendan Sodikoff's romance-oozing Maude's Liquor Bar is a prime destination for all things rich, elegant, and alluring. This is especially true of their seafood selections, available in glorious seafood towers or as a la carte dishes. One section of the menu not to overlook is Maude's daily selection of fresh oysters. They've always got at least a few on hand, each one perfectly indicative of their saline East Coast and West Coast origins. 

Branzino at Nico Osteria: Italian seafood is the name of the game at this Gold Coast foray from the One Off Hospitality contingent. Seafood comes in the form of everything from crudo to antipasti to lobster-strewn spaghetti, but make sure and save room for one of the restaurant's key dishes: the salt-crusted branzino. The crown jewel of the seafood-soaked menu, this dish is ideal for sharing and the perfect expression of Nico's fresh culinary sentiments. The fish is presented in all its glory with simplistic accompaniments that serve to enhance the product, like hearts of palm and Meyer lemon-Prosecco butter. 

Fish tacos at Antique Taco: Fish tacos may be a dime-a-dozen in coastal cities like San Diego, but in Chicago they're woefully rare. At least the good kinds are. One surefire spot for fish taco supremacy is Antique Taco, a masterfully modern taqueria that enhances the taco experience by making each plate taste and look more like a composed entree that just so happens to be enrobed in housemade tortillas. Their version of a fish taco entails tempura-frying fish to achieve a crisp, brittle product with minimal grease. The thin patina of coating allows the succulent fish innards to shine and erupt with flavor, along with bracing additions like sriracha tartar sauce and smoked cabbage. 

Prawn heads at mfk: We've covered Belgian mussels, Japanese sushi, French-inspired oysters, Italian branzino, and Mexican fish tacos. It's only fitting to round out the global spectacle with a little Spanish inspiration. mfk was one of the hottest openings of 2014, a stunner of a Spanish-tinged eatery on the cusp of Lakeview and Lincoln Park. Throughout standout seafood dishes, the restaurant was able to cook up something wholly unique amidst Chicago's diverse dining landscape. While some dishes skew complex, there's one that succeeds in all its bold simplicity. The crunchy prawn heads dish may seem a little aggressive, but one crackly bite — exploding with condensed prawn flavor — and you'll be grappling for more, especially when dragged through the adjoining romesco-like Salbitxada. 

- Matt Kirouac