Americans are eating more and more fish--upwards of ten pounds of seafood per person per year since 1987, compared with less than seven pounds in the early 70s and five to six pounds per person the rest of the century. We also ingest another five pounds of canned fish--salmon, tuna, and sardines--every year.
But seafood's popularity drives up its cost. Dirk Fucik, an owner of Burhop's Seafood in Wilmette, says wholesale salmon has more than doubled in price since the early 70s--despite a massive influx of the farm-raised product--and lobster tails, which fishermen used to consider trash and practically give away, have quadrupled. Concern about health has been motivating sales, but so has the discovery that fish often tastes better than dead land animals. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, shrimp is by far America's favorite seafood, though we're also big on salmon, catfish, flounder, and firm white ocean fish such as haddock and cod. The rising stars are tilapia--an African freshwater fish that's firm, mild, white, and often farm raised--and orange roughy, a meaty Pacific fish that arrives in stores frozen.
Modern refrigeration and shipping methods make super-fresh fish available in Chicago and other inland places, which boosts cost and consumption. But we tend to eat it in restaurants rather than at home. People are still nervous about cooking fish, according to Sheila Ewing of the trade magazine Seafood Business, since it's easy to ruin.
Of course lots of restaurants don't do a good job preparing seafood. Overcooking is the most common sin--cook some fish a minute too long and they're mush, cook a squid too long and it's rubber--and too much gussying up with inappropriate sauces is another.
Chicago has never had the abundance of fine seafood restaurants found in coastal regions, but its plethora of restaurants offers an array of choices ranging from straightforward American creations, simply grilled, broiled, or sauteed, to elaborate ethnic ones.
Hands down, the best seafood in the city is at Shaw's Crab House (21 E. Hubbard, 527-2722). The variety is wide--you can usually find five to eight kinds of oysters alone--the cooking light, the sauces complementary. Yves Roubaud, one of the best versatile chefs in town, recently offered a superb black bass, simply sauteed with a hint of lemon and butter ($21.95), and a delightfully unctuous grilled sturgeon with a slightly charred glaze of mustard ($17.95). Preambles included a perfect crab cake ($7.95), gently seasoned with hardly any binder, and fantastic tuna sashimi, barely seared at the outer edge ($7.95).
You'll also find Cajun preparations and lots of zesty shrimp dishes--plus a list of wines recommended for each cooking style. Then there's the terrific adjacent Blue Crab Lounge, with shellfish by the piece and some less expensive dishes.
Not far away is the Italian seafood house Mare--pronounced mah-ray, meaning the sea (400 N. Clark, 245-9933). Chef Paul LoDuca turns out a fascinating fishy repertoire that includes an amazingly tender grilled octopus--touched with olive oil and white wine and mated with white beans ($6.95)--and plump stuffed squid afloat in a light, saffrony tomato sauce ($6.95).
LoDuca does beguiling things with the accompaniments. Impeccably grilled escolar, a rich fish similar to sturgeon, was paired with escarole and sun-dried tomatoes ($17.95); tilapia, the newest rage, was deftly charred and served with black beans and an aromatic roasted red pepper sauce ($14.95). The atmosphere is lots of fun, with bright murals of Italian seascapes and pastoral landscapes.
The best Greektown restaurants do wonders with whole snapper and sea bass--simply grilling them with healthy applications of lemon, olive oil, and a sprinkling of good oregano. You can find exemplary renditions nightly at Santorini (138 S. Halsted, 829-8880), where the market price typically runs $14 to $18 depending on size. This handsome white stucco house, modeled after those on the Aegean island after which it's named, also introduced one of my all-time favorite dishes: grilled octopus, splashed with lemon and oil ($7.95 appetizer portion that easily serves two).
The Chinese are masters of the art of quick cooking and tantalizing sauces. At 65 Restaurant's Chinatown location (2414 S. Wentworth, 225-7060; its Michigan Avenue place is not nearly as good) a recent special seafood dinner for six, only $88, included eight grand dishes--among them huge oysters on the shell steamed with black bean sauce. The shellfish sauce would have made a leather glove taste great. Then there was the gingered Dungeness crab, the salt-fried oysters, the salt-fried shrimp, the gently spiced lobster, and on and on. The items are also available a la carte, many of them under $10. The bright, bare-bones room is not exactly conducive to romance.
If you really like good seafood but don't want to pay Shaw's prices, acceptable alternatives exist in many neighborhoods. Wrigleyville's Raw Bar (3720 N. Clark, 348-7291) is a popular hangout where you can slurp up a half-dozen clams or oysters (usually about $5.95) or sample an idiosyncratic range of dishes from a simple steamed or grilled lobster (averaging $16.95) to tempura shrimp ($11.95) to blackened mahimahi ($10.95). The dishes range from decent to surprisingly good, though some of the more elaborate preparations are overly ambitious, like the mixed mess of clashing ingredients called "stack of plenty."
The excellent grilled squid was presented with scallions, olive oil, and roasted garlic ($6.95). The crab cakes had a touch too much filler, but were saved by zippy chive mayonnaise ($8.95). And one night there was a stone crab appetizer for only $8.95 at this slightly noisy but lovable joint.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.