There's a difference between liking seafood and liking food that tastes like the sea smells at low tide. I'll probably never entirely appreciate bottarga, a delicacy of salt-cured fish roe that's powerfully fishy even in minuscule doses. Blame whatever neurochemistry shaped my preferences and aversions—you certainly can't fault my seafood-rich Floridian upbringing—but when a server at Sink | Swim placed on our table an order of cracker-crisp lavash covered in shavings of bottarga ("batarga" on the menu), I could almost hear that classic-cartoon sound effect of a garbage scow's foghorn blowing and seagulls cawing.
Seafood shouldn't be devoid of flavor either, like a fillet of sole served in a puddle of salty brown broth along with undercooked navy beans, a couple of boiled potatoes, and greens. Neither side of the fish seemed like it had been introduced to a hot pan, so it crumbled under the weight of its soupy preparation. The combination of the toothy beans and the broth was oddly reminiscent of boiled peanuts, a southern delicacy in their own right when purchased by the Styrofoam cupful from a roadside stand.
Chef Matt Danko, the former pastry chef from Cleveland who's at the helm of this new Logan Square spot, has created an ambitious and well thought-out menu that somehow manages to eschew some of seafood's most appealing aspects: the sweetness and snap of shrimp, the golden sear on a meaty piece of fish, the butter drenching the broiled something or other. Still, the Scofflaw Group has created a dining experience that'll likely win over the denizens of a neighborhood with only a handful of seafood-specific options. Judging by the crowds, it already has.
Even when it's packed to the gills (fish jokes!), the atmosphere at Sink | Swim is extraordinarily pleasant. The bar stools and booths, upholstered in blue vinyl, recall a seaside fish shack circa the 1970s. The walls are decorated with framed portraits of white-bearded fishermen. The space is large but still manages to feel cozy, even when there's no flame in the freestanding fireplace.
A half-dozen raw oysters are an auspicious start to a meal. Well-shucked and brimming with liquor, two varieties are on offer, one from the east coast and one from the west. The west-coast oysters were gargantuan and beautifully briny, the accompanying mignonette tasty but unnecessary. For a dollar extra per oyster, add the garum vinaigrette (garum being a fermented fish sauce used in Roman times), which has a mild fishiness that deepens the flavor of the bivalves.
From there the menu is divided between small plates, entrees, and desserts. If the entrees seem improbably well priced it's because the portions are diminutive, so supplementing one with a couple of small plates is advisable.
A lot of Danko's dishes have at least one vegetal, one dairy, and one nutty element (sometimes contributed by aged cheese) and, often, a pop of citrus. In a dish of "chewy beets" with shaved pear and frisee, a smear of sunflower milk does dairy-nutty double duty. Incorporating these elements on the same plate is clever, particularly when the execution is good. For instance, the garlic panisse are melty little cuboid croquettes, crispy and crackly on the outside and almost liquid within; grated lemon rind provides brightness while pecorino gives them a salty kick. The aforementioned chewy beets—as strange as they sound—made me annoyed I'd ever eaten beets that weren't exactly this texture; torn mint leaves bring the root to life. Gin isn't detectable in the gin-cured salmon, but the gleaming pink squares of fish are accompanied by a gray parsnip ketchup that has a bright, almost cidery flavor. Depending on your mood, the dish is either dainty or dinky.
Elsewhere among the small plates, disappointment lurks. An underwhelming order of limp charred broccoli is overwhelmed by the flavor of seaweed flakes sprinkled on top. A salad of butter lettuce is doused in an otherwise delicious tangy buttermilk dressing. The warm, spongy shrimp toasts topped with a layer of the spreadable sausage nduja aren't bad, but they bear the burden of representing the only shrimp on the menu.
Entrees too are all over the place. A wreath of zucchini topped with smoked trout drowns in a kind of seafood fondue. The fish-and-chips are simple, crisp, and full of flavor. A garlicky tartar sauce makes a fine dip for the fries, but it would be a shame to let it overtake the mild sweetness of the cod.
Two of the best things on the menu don't involve seafood at all. Not just a bone thrown to the seafood averse, the lean chicken paillard is impossibly moist and plated with crispy fried greens, a turnip puree, and a smear of thickened buttermilk; crushed hazelnuts are sprinkled on top. No one element dominates any other, making for a series of perfectly balanced bites.
For dessert the pecorino cake is a moist, almost polenta-dense pound cake cut into cylinders and crescent shapes, accompanied by a honey-infused cream and delightfully bitter bits of grapefruit reinforced by an equally bitter aperitif. We should have ordered two.
Given the choice—and assuming there's a seat open at the bar—I'd go to Sink | Swim for a cocktail before I went to Scofflaw, where I've found the drinks to be rather one-note. The cocktail menu at Scofflaw's sibling strikes all the right chords. The blackberry-infused Splash Ghost is fresh and fruity, made with either vodka or gin. The Breakneck, a manhattan-esque bourbon cocktail, is spicy and complex. The daiquiri, made with an aged white rum, is simple and summery. And the White Negroni, with Lillet Blanc and a slick of orange oil on top, is bitter and herbaceous, though not necessarily suited to accompanying a mild seafood dish. During two visits I relied on server recommendations for a white wine to pair with the main course, and their choices—an unoaked chardonnay and a crisp Grüner Veltliner—were spot-on.
A meal at Sink | Swim may or may not scratch a seafood itch. Still, everyone seems to be falling for it, hook, line, and sinker. v