Category Archives: seafood

Thrillist puts on its first annual event in Chicago

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Thrillist is the group from New York that’s spreading its tongue-in-cheek attitude via daily email letters full of articles. They came to Chicago a couple of years ago, and now they’ve decided to start giving parties and inviting local restaurants to participate. They did the first one recent here, and they did a great job. Some of Chicago’s finest restaurants participated (Joe’s Seafood, Chicago Q, Wildfire, etc.).

Tip: Just because there’s a long line doesn’t mean that place has better food. It’s just as likely that the staffers aren’t handling their jobs as efficiently as other stands.

One of the fun things about this event was the central area where people could play games – like giant-size Jango sticks, beanbag toss, etc. Great idea to have something to do besides drink and eat. Makes it feel even more like a party.

And the facility – an old factory in West Loop – was very cool. Besides the dynamite skylight, the bathrooms were the bomb! Go, Thrillist. We look forward to your next event.

Thrillist party bathroom
Thrillist party bathroom
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Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

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Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
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Cooking live lobster – an adventure story

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Lobster by Fabio delivers seafood. We were happy to be invited recently to review a sample of their wares. The large box – overnight from Maine – arrived on the morning of the day we’d agreed on for delivery. Nice that we didn’t have to wait all day for it.
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What we were not prepared for, however, was the fact that their product is alive when it comes to the door. Even though we’ve tried lots of challenging dishes over the years, the truth is, we’d never cooked live mussels or – gulp – live lobsters. Today’s the day, guys.
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Fabio seafood cooking instructions
Fabio seafood cooking instructions

Having read over the years probably dozens of recipes for cooking mussels, this part doesn’t feel too intimidating. Fortunately, the single printed sheet that comes in the box contains straightforward, simple instructions for preparation. The next challenge is that we don’t have on hand the scallions specified for the mussel-poaching broth. After briefly considering it, we reject the idea of going to the grocery store. Thinking first that we’ll go to the trusty Internet for help, we remember our handy-dandy little mini Julia Child cookbook, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. Naturally, she comes through for us once more. We luckily do have on hand the shallots and garlic she calls for – sauté them in butter, she says. Oh, good, we think. That sounds really good. So now it’s time to punt.

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We open the insulated box to see what’s in it. Underneath the layer of still-solid ice packs, the net bag of mussels looks easy enough to handle. The live lobsters – nestling in the dark, tight-fitting cardboard slots and trying to wave their rubber-banded claws about – look a great deal less so. Did I mention we never cooked live lobsters before? Oh, yeah. Gulp.
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After some discussion about the humaneness of cooking live lobster I urge my granddaughter to stop looking at them; we don’t want to make friends with them. She mentions again that she just ate an entire lobster a mere two nights earlier when her mom took her to Shaw’s for their annual Christmas lobster dinner. I tell her I’ll be glad to take hints from her on the most efficient ways to eat this seafood. She assures me – with all the finesse of a confident, experienced 9-year-old – she’s happy to instruct me.
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We first review Internet instructions for determining whether a mussel is dead or alive. We are reminded that if the mussel is open when it’s not cooked, that’s a bad thing. However, we also learn that we can tap the shell on the sink and if it then closes, that means it’s alive and okay to cook and eat. Dutifully we go through the bag and end up discarding about 10 mussels before cooking. I decide afterwards we could probably have tried cooking them and seeing what happened. But being newbies, we didn’t know how much leeway to give the little shell guys, so the percentage we deemed inedible was probably not typical with Fabio’s service.
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Live mussels cooked in buttery broth
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth

Ok. We bring the shallot-and-garlic-infused buttery chicken broth and white wine mixture to a gentle simmer, throw in the mussels and cover the giant skillet. Five minutes later our black bivalves are open and ready to eat. We dish those into a big serving bowl to wait while we tackle the giant clawed crustaceans next. First adding the provided bag of sea salt and seaweed to a couple of inches of water in the bottom of our biggest pot, we then set the steamer rack on top of that. Bring it to a roaring boil, the instructions say, so we do.

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Next step: put the lobsters in the steamer. There’s no way we’re removing the rubber bands from the claws until after these guys expire. Using a pair of tongs with some trepidation, we lift one out of the box and plunge it headfirst into the steaming cauldron. Same with number two and slam the lid on. It says cook exactly 14 minutes, opening the pot and rearranging the lobsters at the halfway point. Okay. So far, so good.
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Open is good
Open is good

Next, toast some bread and melt some butter for dipping. We’re getting excited now. Set out the big white china plates, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. I’d earlier gotten the big, fancy white serving dish down from above the cabinets and washed the accumulated dust and grease off – don’t often use serving dishes this big – so that’s ready to hold the two lobsters. We sit down with gusto to enjoy our mussels, and they are very good indeed. Dip bread in the broth. Num. We dispatch a lion’s share of the pile in under 14 minutes.

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Lobster by Fabio - fabulous!
Lobster by Fabio – fabulous!

The timer goes off. Open the pot. Wow, those lobsters are now an intensely bright orange-y red. Transfer to platter. Sit down. Realize we haven’t yet located the cracker. Get up and scrounge through every drawer. No dice. Think fast. Get the pliers out of the tool – aka junk – drawer and sit down. She starts with the legs. Demonstrates the technique for squeezing them with the cracking implement – whatever – and sucking the meat out. I try one but then can’t wait and go straight to a claw.

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Pliers work in a pinch
Pliers work in a pinch

Luckily, the pliers work fairly well for this delicate operation. As I crack along the edge, the succulent claw meat begins to peek out. Eventually, to my surprise, I get the beautiful claw out in practically a single piece. Dip in the puddle of rich, melted unsalted butter. Nibble. Close my eyes, the better to savor. How good it tastes! Is it the effort we put into it, or does this lobster really taste like the best I’ve ever had? We’re each wearing an oven glove to hold the shells so we don’t get stabbed as we wrestle the meat out – a technique we recommend for proper-techniqueanyone eating lobster at home. Companion cook/young lady and I continue attacking our plates with enthusiasm, the shell bits pile up, and then we’re both ready to eat the tail. She explains how you tear off and discard the main part of the body with its green goo – “unless you like that part.” And we both eat every last bite of the tails on our big, juicy one-and-a-half-pounders from Lobster by Fabio.

Wild-caught. Fresh from Maine. Sustainably grown. Flown and delivered overnight to your door. Utterly delicious. Do not hesitate to order some whenever you’re ready to do the honors. Bravo, Fabio!
P.S. Upon roaming around on their website the next day, I stumbled on a small section that explained how to kill lobsters humanely. You put them in the freezer for two hours and then plunge a knife in the back of their heads before you place them in the steam bath. So you might want to make sure there’s room in your freezer (these guys are big) before you order. Sorry, lobsters – but thank you for your wonderful meat! And thank you, Chef Fabio Viviani.
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Chez Moi – a remarkable French restaurant in Chicago

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Country French with be-feathered crystal chandeliers
Country French with be-feathered crystal chandeliers

Okay, I have not tried every French restaurant in Chicago yet. But people have been asking me for years what’s my favorite restaurant in Chicago and, up ’til, now I’ve not been able to name a specific place. Have had many, many pleasant experiences, some exceptional (hello, Chef Lee Wolen and Boka). But last Saturday my friend and I were both overawed with the food, the ambiance and the service at Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted.

If this meal was indicative, Chef Dominique Tougne is doing an extraordinary job of bringing authentic French cuisine to our city. Friend and I both felt we might easily have been in a small bistro in or outside Paris, soaking in the candlelit warmth, the darkly dramatic artwork on the walls, and the feather-encrusted crystal-drop chandeliers. The dark-and-thick-crusted bread with butter was good – and hard not to eat more of. But we knew we were truly in the presence of French food artistry when we tasted the first dish – Black Truffle Quiche.

Quiche. Okay, you’re probably thinking heavy egg-cream concoction baked atop a heavy pastry crust with maybe some bacon and cheese in it. But that is decidedly not what you get from Chef Dominique. This dish is an ethereally light custard, kissed with seared foie gras and set snugly in a feather-light pastry crust that almost melts into and becomes part of the custard. Topped with a tiny nest of greens, and surrounded by a puddle of rich port wine reduction, this quiche will take you into a realm quite beyond the ordinary. And it was rich enough for us to share and feel content.

The Qualidou, said to be “either a larger appetizer or a smaller entree” size, combined half a confit quail, thinly sliced seared duck breast and foie gras, accompanied by thinly sliced sauteed mushrooms, all in a generous pool of concentrated wine sauce. With all these intense flavors, we had no trouble splitting this and feeling satisfied. And I love the fact that they give you a spoon with every dish that has a sauce. Let us respect – and savor – the sauce!!

When the onion tart appetizer arrived, we were surprised at its size – generous enough for 3 people. And, oh the pastry crust! Flaky and layered richly with butter, it made a fabulous base for a nice combination of onion, bacon and creme fraiche.

Our server explained that the Gateau Breton de Solidou is a shortbread cake. Well, who knew? This incredible dessert had tender crustiness and richness in equal measure. The butter flavor was extravagant. The sauce was heavenly, and the vanilla ice cream (house made) made the combination exquisite.  Could eat this for breakfast, lunch or dinner and need nothing else.

Chez Moi offers a small but obviously carefully curated list of beers, cocktails, liqueurs, and French wines. The by-the-bottle listings yielded several options under $50. We selected the French Malbec and, after it breathed for a few minutes, it made a nice pairing with our meal.

Chef offers a prix fixe menu selection all week, Sunday through Thursday – three courses include a salad, then your choice of entree (hanger steak, roast chicken, seared salmon or roasted vegetables) and tiramisu for dessert. Check out the rest of the menus here. We cannot wait to come back again. In fact, this place is tempting me to eat out much more often than I usually do. Exceptional experience. Will let you know if next visits measure up.

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GOING ON NOW – a la Carte Chicago

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You have until October 30 to take advantage of the deals during a la Carte Chicago, an 11-day food festival that celebrates contemporary French food. Participating restaurants, bakeries and more might be French or simply French-inspired – Shaw’s Crab House is in on it. The important thing is they’re all offering specials during the festival, including prix fixe menus. The fest also includes cooking workshops, tastings, cultural events, and activities for food lovers of all ages.

This is a great opportunity to get out and experience some of the many French-food-loving chefs and restaurants in Chicago. At a preview, guests tasted delicious tuna salad sandwiches on rich tasting French white buns from Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted – sandwiches that made us feel like heading over there ASAP. Ridiculously good chocolate hazelnut bars from Chef Martial Noguier at Bistronomic, 840 N. Wabash. Others include Cafe des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut, Circle City Sweets from Indianapolis for heavens’ sake, and dozens more.

Also, consider attending the screening of “Kings of Pastry” at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. at 4:45 on Sunday, October 30. Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer will be there in person, and after the movie there’ll be a free tasting of specialties from the French Pastry School. Go here for the complete list and check out the sweepstakes for a trip to Lyon, France.
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Knife Chicago brings food and cocktails to an exciting new edge

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Knife's deeply rich lobster bisque
Knife’s deeply rich lobster bisque

At the new Knife restaurant, 4343 N. Lincoln Ave., Chef Tim Cottini is bringing the Chicago steakhouse concept to a new edge with totally re-imagined dishes that incorporate farm-to-table freshness in meats, seafood and vegetables. Love their Lobster Bisque! Read more details and preview the menu here.

But Knife doesn’t stop at the food. Also not to be missed are the ethereally creative cocktails designed and named by Knife mixologist Anthony Muenger and served with flair, along with a generous supply of his entertaining personal stories and light-hearted humor. So, first, come in for a visit and sit at the bar. Revel in the feel of a unique, sensually rounded-on-all-edges marble bar top, shaped like a giant italicized “L” and set an an angle to the handsome bar wall. Let your eyes wander from the blood-red accent wall to the details of the smoothly swirled wall adjoining it. Makes you feel bathed in color and texture.

Looking to create a downtown feel in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood, Knife will offer many Wine Enthusiast-recommended wines as well as a collection of unique and fantastically named cocktails (derived, says Mixologist Muenger, from terms in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows). Ask him to show you how he uses a port hole infuser to soak various fruits in a lavender-infused German rye whiskey. The resulting cocktail, called Enouement, matures and changes as you pour from the infuser throughout your dinner, eventually transforming itself towards the end of the meal into an amari-type digestif.

Muenger says Chef Cottini accepted the offer of the whiskey people’s barrels to age Knife’s own steak sauce in – so look for that unique treat with your bone-in ribeye. Another of his unique cocktails is his sour-style version of Clover Club, served with a bit of raspberry and Roobios tea. The Ellipism cocktail has tiny house-made spheres of Remy Martin VSOP cognac floating in a delicious mix of house-made orange liqueur, lemon and bitters. $13.

In short, Knife is a hot new contemporary seafood and steakhouse where you can celebrate with unique food and drink in Chicago. Whether it’s a special occasion – or just Wednesday night – you’re bound to find something to delight your tastebuds.
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Chicago Loop welcomes The Kimpton Gray Hotel

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Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby
Cool seat in the Kimpton Gray Hotel lobby

The Kimpton Gray Hotel, 122 W. Monroe St. at LaSalle, is the newest upscale lodging option in the heart of the Chicago Loop’s legal and financial district. Located on the second floor, the lobby – known as “The Living Room” – welcomes guests with coffee, tea and muffins in the morning and wine and cheese receptions each evening. Naturally, the Wi-Fi is free. The huge arched windows, framed with floor-to-ceiling black velvet draperies with gold headers, let in natural light and spotlight views of bustling Monroe and LaSalle Streets.

Just off the lobby guests can join locals for lunch, dinner, drinks and more in the bar and restaurant Vol. 39, so named because it refers to the legal volumes that fill the bookcases surrounding the eating area. Handsome lighting and luxurious seating arrangements are perfect for intimate meetings, whether business or pleasure.
The new hotel is the dramatic result of a complete rehabilitation of the former New York Life Insurance building, originally built in 1894. A sweeping marble staircase leads from the entrance to the second floor lobby – graced with the sound of a jazz quartet at the grand opening. Many of the hallways in the 15 floors are still lined with the original marble. At the grand opening designers made dramatic use of lighting – electric, multi-colored, candles, spots and more – to showcase decorations and finishes. A large section of the meeting room space was strikingly decorated with candles and complementary yet completely different items to hold candles and flowers.
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast
The elegant modern bar at Steadfast

Besides Volume 39, guests and locals can select breakfast, lunch or dinner available at Steadfast, the restaurant and bar located at 120 W. Monroe and situated within the main floor of The Kimpton Gray. Its menus offer unique items like duck liver mousse crostini and a laminated brioche sandwich with Serano ham, Manchego, quail egg and caviar.

Check out unique menu items at Steadfast
Check out unique menu items at Steadfast

The presidential suite was beautifully appointed with sleek modern fixtures in a gray/white/black theme and was, well, presidential in its grandeur – easy to picture a president relaxing there. Other size rooms and suites were equally handsome though somewhat smaller, of course. On the 15th floor the rooftop restaurant/bar BOLEO offers a menu with a South American flair and a comfortable place to take in some unique views of downtown. The grand opening featured a hot-tempo video/DJ combo and soulful trumpet by Kafele playing along.

Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Kafele playing hot licks in the cleared-out dining space of Boleo
Elegant. Understated. Service-oriented. Kimpton always does a great job. And now The Gray is a new top pick among the Chicago Loop’s eat-drink-and-stay choices.
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
Even the powder rooms are cool at The Kimpton Gray Hotel
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Shaw’s puts the OYSTER in Oyster Fest 2016

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7 on the half-shell
7 on the half-shell

It’s Oyster Fest week, people! Shaw’s Crab House Chicago is making this week a real standout on the calendar with multiple events honoring the king of bivalves, the oyster.

Yesterday, for example, author Cynthia Nims and Shaw’s invited press and industry pundits to hear about the amazing things she learned about oysters in writing her book, Oysters: Recipes that bring home a taste of the sea. Guests were treated to a wide variety of oysters made with recipes taken from her book and lovingly prepared by the oyster expert chefs in Shaw’s kitchen.

The event started with a sinus-cleansingly-hot wasabi oyster shooter and went on with a tray of oysters on the half shell from various regions of the US. These included the delectable small Olympia oyster from Puget Sound, several with Japanese names (and origins) from both East and West coasts, one from New Brunswick, Canada (very close to the Prince Edward Island known for its mussels) and one large, flat variety from Casco Bay Flats in Maine. The Olympia was a favorite.

Next on the menu came steamed-then-chilled Shigoku oysters, one dish made with a super-fresh and original mix of watercress, cilantro, Asian pear, candied pecans in an orange vinaigrette that was simply delicious. Another covered the oysters in a sake-ginger butter sauce full of flavor.

Next course was a trio of hot oysters – one baked with leeks and thyme, another gratineed with kale, and a third grilled and covered with a bright green arugula-almond pesto. Meanwhile Cynthia regaled guests with stories of how oysters filter the water in which they live and how their taste is profoundly affected by their environment, somewhat in the way wines are heavily influenced by their terroir. She said in all her years of food writing she’s rarely seen the passion and the partiality of oyster lovers in fans of other food groups.

Check out other oyster-related events at Shaw’s here and get ready for their huge Oyster Fest, on deck for tomorrow, Friday September 30, 3 to 10pm. Rain or shine the fest is on – and Shaw’s stands ready to help you enjoy it no matter what. They’ve purchased 1000 rain ponchos to pass out should the weather decide not to cooperate. Whether you join the teeming crowds, or you purchase the new-this-year VIP seated/service option, come on down and thrill to the live music, the great food and fun crowds at Shaws Chicago Oyster Fest 2016.
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DMK Fish Bar home run menu items

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Fish Bar menu from DMK Restaurants
Fish Bar menu from DMK Restaurants

Have loved DMK Burger Bar at 2954 N. Sheffield ever since it opened several years back. Been meaning for a long time to get to their Fish Bar around the corner and finally did this weekend.

Seating available inside or out – it was a bit too loud and hot inside we can climbed onto one of the unusually proportioned picnic benches outside (the bench seat is set a little closer-in than average). Rolls of paper towels dot the tables in lieu of napkins. The menu’s interesting, ranging from fresh oysters, Seared Tuna Salad and Head-On Prawn Salad to tacos, sandwiches (including po’boys), entrees, and some smaller items called “Crispy.” I realize only now that the menu did not contain any variety of French fries – and I didn’t even miss them. We really liked the of taste of the wine-of-the-day, Squandra Rosato rosé, and ordered a bottle ($27).

Paper towel roll on stand
Paper towel roll on stand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ordered the seafood special of the day and got two nicely seared, very large scallops served with a little pile of crispy-bacon-lardon-studded Brussels sprouts. Very good. Companion raved about the fried shrimp po’boy ($12) – said it was one of the best sandwiches she’d ever tasted, and the shrimp were entirely ungreasy. A good-sized helping of out-of-the-box-colorful cole slaw was big enough to share.

A favorite for us both was the small plate of Crispy Lemon Rings ($5) served with crispy slivers of onion and slices of jalapeno. Absolutely delicious. The tempura-type breading was barely-there and deep-fried, well, crispy but not greasy. The lemon slices, skin-on, melted into something quite tasty and not at all puckery. This might be a dish I’d want to get with whatever else I order here next time.

And there will be a next time. Soon.

 

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