"Nobody else has this." That's what Glenn Fahlstrom claims about the burger at Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market, a burger weighing in at a half pound of chopped sirloin, with raw onion, lettuce, "poorman's" Thousand Island dressing, tomato, and cheese. I didn't eat the burger at Fahlstrom's. I was there to eat fish, primarily. But the claim about its singularity is dubious, as there's a suspiciously similar burger a few miles north at Glenn's Diner, the Ravenswood seafood restaurant Fahlstrom founded in 2005 and then was booted from after a protracted legal battle with one of his partners two years ago.
In fact, there's an impressive similarity between the two restaurants. You could say that but for a few exceptions, Fahlstrom's has reopened Glenn's in Lakeview, which should be good news for lovers of minimally seasoned seafood. There are the same cereal boxes displayed on the wall, for breakfast anytime. There's the same wall-length chalkboard for seafood specials. And there's a printed menu that's nearly identical, right down to the inscrutable wine notes that read as if they were mumbled by Michael Stipe.
There are a few big differences, though: A retail fish market, equipped with a conveyor-belt oven, for toasted sandwiches to go, that can produce a pretty impressive smoked-sturgeon club. There's a roomier dining room. And there's a large separate bar with spirits in addition to beer and wine. Dad's French toast is now Albert's French toast (sounds like another lawsuit there).
I used to eat fairly regularly at Glenn's Diner—when I wanted simply prepared fresh seafood, maybe a potato on the side, maybe some out-of-season asparagus. But I stopped sometime after Fahlstrom left, because I'd been burned too many times by overcooked, ill-prepared fish. It was easy to chalk that up to the absence of Fahlstrom, a guy with a long history of cooking aquatic species. But it pains me to report that nearly all the seafood I tasted on my visits to his new joint was prepared with a disregard for its integrity that was so consistent it almost seemed intentional.
Mostly it was overcooked, the easiest way to ruin a fish. It happened with a large cracker-crusted panfried grouper. It happened with a plate of New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp that additionally failed to deliver any of the promised heat, but were sweet enough to have come from a Chinese takeout container. It happened to the poor mussels, shrimp, crab, and salmon floating in a bowl of equally bland liquid that was supposed to be cioppino broth. And it happened to a fist-size chunk of grilled sturgeon smothered in a cream sherry sauce with bacon and mushrooms.
Overcooking isn't the only problem at Fahlstrom's. Hefty shrimp tacos are served on heavy, unwarmed flour tortillas. Underfried calamari is served with a tepid, thick, sweet Thai-style peanut sauce that goes to war with its greasy breading. New England clam chowder is so gluey with flour you could stand a spoon up in it. A generous bowl of mussels showered with garlic and Parmesan can't compensate for the puny wrinkled bivalves themselves.
Minor conceptual flaws tend to disrupt the enjoyment of seafood that's actually prepared well. There was a smoky trout salad with a fistful of Ritz Crackers that seemed as if they'd been dumped unceremoniously on the plate. A fresh, beautiful salad of sweet fat shrimp, smoked trout, king crab, and mussels is served with watery, tasteless out-of-season tomatoes. A buttery roll positively stuffed with excellent king crabmeat is heaped with an overload of mayo-drenched coleslaw.
I was surprised to find that the very best things I ate at Fahlstrom's didn't come from the ocean: a toasty Vienna Beef Reuben amped by a schmear of chicken liver, the occasionally crispy latkes, and the buttery Texas toast served as a side. I should have tried that burger after all.
One of my operatives reported nightmares the morning after a meal at Fahlstrom's. "I blame the hate in that food," she said, which is just about the harshest criticism of a restaurant I've ever heard. I don't believe that anyone's cooking with hatred at Fahlstrom's, but they're certainly not cooking with love.
Then again, the seats are full, and Fahlstrom's seems as popular as Glenn's ever was. "I understand what midwestern people like to eat," Fahlstrom recently told a blogger. He also described the restaurant as a "seafood version of Potbelly's."
Maybe he really does know something about us.