Chicagoans continue to gobble up all the fish they can find, but somehow specialized seafood houses have a tough time surviving. Though seafood scarfing has increased exponentially since the early 80s, and the mainstays--the Cape Cod Room, Shaw's Crab House, and Nick's Fishmarket--have all enjoyed long life spans, many other fine fish houses have sunk without a trace.
Ireland's shut down and was succeeded by Burhop's, which closed after a short run to become Michael Jordan's restaurant. (Burhop's continues as a retail seafood market in Lincoln Park and the suburbs.) Jonathan Livingston Seafood was one of the earliest Rich Melman places to cut bait. George Badonsky's chic Tango did its last dance in the late 80s, and soon afterward the Nantucket Cove on Lake Shore Drive sailed away. Mare, the Italian seafood house, became Trattoria Parma, and Carmine's Clam House became just plain Carmine's.
None of this fazed intrepid restaurateur Roger Greenfield, who opened the Bluepoint Oyster Bar in the Randolph Market area a little more than a year ago. "We follow trends," says Greenfield. His Restaurant Development Group now has ten eateries ranging from the Saloon steak house to Bar Louie--and has either closed or sold off another half dozen in recent years. "Randolph Street is a hot new area, but there seemed to be a void in the market. Seafood was a great fit and the timing was perfect."
Similar thoughts came from Packy Longfellow, director of marketing for McCormick & Schmick's, a chain based in Portland, Oregon, that decided to make Chicago its first midwestern port. The restaurant opened on the Gold Coast in December.
Longfellow brushed off the recent closings as "only a piece of the puzzle."
Housed on the ground floor of a landmark office building at 41 E. Chestnut (312-397-9500), the two-story, mahogany-paneled space succeeds at feeling like it's been there forever. My favorite feature here (and at the Bluepoint) is the selection of oysters, up to a half dozen different varieties daily. A sampler of a dozen with two clams runs $19.90. The menu lists more than 30 dishes, ranging from simple grilled fish with lemon butter to complex combinations such as an appetizer of squid "sausage" stuffed with fish bits, mushrooms, and spinach ($8.55) or baked shrimp stuffed with crab and bay shrimp ($11.90). The crab cakes are crisp and sweet with minimal binder, touched with sweet red pepper aioli ($12.95).
A decided winner one evening was a beautiful Washington salmon fillet roasted on a wood plank so that it acquired a slightly smoky tinge--so flavorful and moist it didn't even need its pinot noir berry sauce ($17.85). Just as exciting was mahimahi seared in a crisp cloak of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and crushed cashews drizzled with rum-butter sauce ($19.95). A rich Chilean sea bass--currently my favorite fish--was marinated in sake and white wine, grilled, and served with lemon soy sauce and stir-fried veggies ($19.30). A cioppinolike, tomato-based shellfish stew was fresh but routine ($18.90).
Greenfield's Bluepoint Oyster Bar took over the big corner space at 741 W. Randolph (312-207-1222) that once housed Barney's Market Club, the legendary steak house. The dark, paneled bar has a decidedly New York flavor; the big main dining room with its potted plants and leather trim continues the effect. Waiters periodically grab lobsters and crabs out of the tank in one corner, weighing the flailing crustaceans before sending them to their final reward.
Here, where the menu changes weekly, we began with Kumamoto, Malpeque, and Watch Hill oysters. The Malpeques were wonderful, though one of the Kumamotos was over the hill ($1.65-$1.85 each). Pepper-crusted ahi tuna was perfect sashimi inside the flavorfully seared exterior, enhanced by a horseradish cream sauce ($7.95). The crab cakes were well flavored, the essential succulence coming through, though they were not as crispy as some; a good remoulade helped ($9.95). Nice job also with the blackened shrimp, cooked just to the point of crunchiness with a zest that didn't overpower ($11.95). The fried calamari was all right, though it had the look and texture of preprepared squid. We preferred a cocktail sauce to the spicy marinara ($6.95).
A fine comfort dish was the huge shrimp stuffed with crabmeat in a thick, savory white sauce, all playing well against the roasted-garlic mashed potatoes ($22.95). The most interesting concoction was peppercorn-seared swordfish bedded on a crusty potato cake and topped with an unusual salsa based on avocado and cognac--a fascinating meld of flavors and textures ($21.95). Another piece of exotica, halibut done with a scallion crust and a soy-chili glaze, was a bit overwrought. The flavorings overpowered the simplicity of the fish ($19.95).
Large live lobsters are $21.95 per pound, or a great shore dinner can be had with a small one accompanied by steamed salmon, clams, and mussels for $22.95. --Don Rose
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rogers Greenfield at the Bluepoint Oyster Bar photo by Eugene Zakusilo; McCormick & Schmick's photo by Eugene Zakusilo; misc. fish photos.