FRESH FISH--IN CHICAGO? SHOULD YOU EAT FISH WHEN YOU'RE FAR FROM THE OCEAN? ONLY IF YOU KNOW THE SECRETS OF THE GREAT CHICAGO FISH HOUSES.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Nicholas Nickolas owns fish restaurants in Hawaii, Illinois, and Florida. So it might surprise you that patrons of Nick's Fishmarket in Chicago sometimes eat fish fresher than that consumed by oceanside diners. Naturally he scoffs at the question of whether you should eat fish when you're far from the coast. "If there's an airport nearby, you have nothing to worry about," he says.
Still, the question of freshness looms large at Chicago fish houses. Luckily, none of the best are far from O'Hare, where United Airlines deplanes almost as many fish each day as it does human sardines. Many of the fish (and some of the smarter people) end up at Bob Chinn's Crab House in suburban Wheeling, Illinois, where the air bills are posted on the wall each day in case you have any doubt that his fish are fresh.
But while daily deliveries count for something, they may not be essential. Jon Rowley, a former fisherman who now consults for restaurants out of his Seattle office, believes the best time to eat fish may be several days after they're killed. "There's a chemical in fish that accounts for its positive flavor, and it peaks right after the fish emerge from rigor mortis," he explains. "I know it doesn't sound right, but that process can take as long as a week." A few years back, food writer Ruth Reichl put this notion to the test and sampled one catfish fillet of unknown age from a supermarket, one that had been killed within the hour, and a third that had just emerged from rigor mortis. The post-rigor fish was far superior.
The key for chefs is to take good care of the fish while they wait. The best fish houses buy whole fish and cut them up themselves on the day that they're served, instead of ordering fillets and steaks from a wholesaler. "When it comes in intact, there's more to look at," says Steve LaHaie, the managing partner at Shaw's Crab House in downtown Chicago. "You can see the net marks--whether it might be tough because it experienced too much trauma while dying." Precut fish also get exposed to more airborne bacteria than that cut before a meal. "Developing good knife people in your kitchen is so important, but most restaurants don't do a good job publicizing them," Rowley says. So ask your waiter who cuts the fish, and if you're at Shaw's, sneak into the kitchen for a peek at the knife men carving grouper cheeks out for skewering.
As long as you're up walking around, take a whiff from a couple of vantage points in the restaurant. "If you smell fish, leave," says Nickolas, who instructs his kitchen staff to smell everything for the scent of decay. Take a good look at the menu too. "You want to look for an oyster culture," says Rowley. "If they're broken out into a separate section on the menu, that means the restaurant takes a lot of pride in them. And since they're the hardest thing to do well, it means the rest of the fish is liable to be good too." Don't fret over the fresh vs. frozen issue either. Just ask a simple question: Was it flash-frozen at sea right after it was caught? If it was, you probably won't be able to tell the difference between that and the fresh stuff. If nobody can answer your question, however, it's a good sign that the restaurant isn't paying enough attention to the origins of the product. Order the pasta.
Nick's tries to get as much of its fish as possible directly from fishermen. As commercial fishing has become more restricted, the restaurant has also turned to fish farms for salmon, catfish, and trout, among others. "Farm-raised fish saved this industry," Nickolas exclaims, and they have the added advantage of providing a highly consistent product. But there's a taste issue too. Wild fish eat things from the water, while farmed fish eat protein pellets. Both fish taste fine, especially when quality fanatics like the folks at Nick's vet out the best farm-raised product. Still, certain wild species are already restricted, so eat the ocean fish now while you still can.
Finally, have a heart-to-heart with your waiters. At Shaw's they don't hire people who don't like oysters. Management also sits waiters down a few times a year with a plate stacked high for brush-up sessions on how to shell a crab and crack a lobster. Good waiters should brag about this stuff, and at Shaw's it doesn't take much prodding to get them to talk.
Still floundering? You'll never go wrong if you anchor yourself to the local delicacies. If you get to Shaw's, start with fried smelts. The recipe comes from an American Legion post in Port Washington, Wisconsin, where smelt eaters are so hard core they gobble the tails. Shaw's leaves the tails on too, in case you're so inclined.