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Dinner With the Fish Guy



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at the Fish Guy Market

4423 N. Elston


Last summer Sarah Scott, a longtime executive chef for the Mondavi family, gave her friend Bill Dugan, aka the Fish Guy, an idea. A chef she knew had rented David Sedaris's Paris apartment and was running an underground restaurant in it. She thought he should do the same thing in his northwest-side seafood shop, the Fish Guy Market.

Dugan bit--he supplies some of the best restaurants in town and had long been interested in opening his own. The result is Wellfleet, the "occasional restaurant" he's hosted in his store since October. Every Thursday he and a team of six transform the space into a dining room, serving up to 12 people a seafood-heavy degustation menu for $100 a head (reservations are required, as is payment in advance). The small room is lit by votive candles and blue neon from the refrigerator case, and chefs Leo Bariso and David Radom do the cooking right behind the counter.

Dugan makes up the menu, which changes monthly, emphasizing pristine prime ingredients like sturgeon caviar, sushi-grade fish, Kobe beef, and Kurobuta pork. Though not a trained chef himself, he's picked up plenty from working with chefs over his 30 years in the fish industry. "That's really how I learned everything," he says.

He was born in Boston and spent childhood summers digging clams on Cape Cod, but as a kid he never liked fish. (Except, he says, "Bumblebee tuna in a can.") Inspired by an uncle who'd started a jet freighter service flying Maine lobsters to Hong Kong and Tokyo, he struck a deal with some fishermen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to supply bluefin tuna to a Japanese market in San Francisco. He opened a wholesale seafood company in California in 1977 and went on to open another company specializing in smoked fish. In 1989 he was bought out by a Swedish firm that made him marketing director for a Sacramento-based sturgeon farm. He was consulting with Nordstrom restaurants in San Francisco when the department-store chain brought him in to work with the Oak Brook branch. He moved to Chicago in 1990, and launched a new wholesale seafood business, Superior Ocean Produce.

At the time Dugan was already acquainted with chefs Charlie Trotter, Jean Joho, and Eric Aubriot, and he quickly established himself as a supplier for high-end restaurants like Spiaggia and Tru. He decided to expand into retail in 1997, opening the Fish Guy Market the following year. The wholesale arm of the Fish Guy Market is still driven by restaurant business: Dugan's clients include Schwa, Tru, Alinea, and Moto. Matthias Merges, chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's, relies on him for such hard-to-find ingredients as codfish tripe, monkfish cartilage, and gooseneck barnacles.

For Wellfleet, Dugan keeps it simple. On the rainy night we were there we started with caviar a la Joel Robuchon, a dish inspired by a cooking demonstration given by the French chef some years ago. It's a ramekin of Illinois sturgeon caviar topped with layers of cauliflower puree and creme fraiche, the contrasting flavors of fish roe and earthy cauliflower surprisingly complementary. Our next course was a salmon loin prepared like gravlax, cured for 12 hours with smoked salt and dill and perked up with lemon cream. This was served with country-bread toast points and a knockout relish made of capers, red onion, lemon zest, and parsley.

Next came an extraordinarily light bisque of Maine bay shrimp, each bowl flecked with lemon thyme. While we ate, Radom gave us a primer on preparing lobster shells for stock (the best part of the lobster to use is where the legs attach to the body, where some meat usually remains). Dugan was chatty too, coming by several times throughout the meal to talk about the ingredients' provenance and preparation.

Following the bisque, Dugan announced a change from the previously announced menu (posted online at fishguy.com): instead of Kobe beef carpaccio, we'd be having big-eye tuna. "We chose a red wine specifically to go with the beef," someone in a party of six moaned (Wellfleet is permanently BYO). But the tuna carpaccio--a large slice of fabulously fresh fish sprinkled with Parmesan and drizzled with a white truffle emulsion--turned out to be red-wine friendly.

Next came what was probably the night's most nuanced offering: stuffed turbot with celeriac puree and fresh parsley broth, powerfully aromatic and savory. Desserts are whipped up off-site by Peter Yuen, a graduate of the French Pastry School and owner of the Uptown shops La Patisserie P and Sweet Passion. On this evening his creation was a wildflower-honey-nougat mousse cake with a pistachio sponge and apricot marmalade.

On Monday through Saturday the Fish Guy Market offers carryout soups, fish sandwiches, and lobster rolls for lunch. Dugan says he'd like this side of his business to continue operating on the q.t.: "I'm a fishmonger, not a sandwich maker. That being said, we make awesome sandwiches." (Customers are asked to phone in orders ahead of time.) And if you see something that looks especially tasty in one of the refrigerated cases, Dugan says, "Let us know, and if we don't have too many customers waiting, we'll cook it up for you right there." --David Hammond

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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