Eat Local Smoked Fish
Smoke Em if Ya Got Em
Smoked whitefish salad on mish-mosh bagel, both from New York Bagel & Bialy in Lincolnwood
I like fish and seafood. I like fish and seafood a lot. I also think we see it on too much of it on area menus. A couple of forces drive the abundance of fish and seafood on our menus. For many, many years, now, there has been a push to eat fish as a healthy alternative to meat. Moreover, various sea creatures played huge roles in trends over the years. I mean we all nearly netted the redfish out of existence when cajun food was the rage. Finally, I think fish and seafood are fun to play with for chefs. Something as basic as raw fish can be gussied up with fancy add-ons and great knife skills. Thus, Chicago has several restaurants that specialize in seafood and many key restaurants feature seafood strongly on their menus. Should they. Just look at the current posted menus at a couple of places. North Pond’s seasonal tasting menu features kampachi (crudo!) and scallops. Lula has octopus and cured salmon roe. Like I say, I want to eat this stuff. I love crudo. I love octopus. I love most seafood. Just keep it away from me. Serve me something local instead.
The acceptance of freshwater fish in local restaurants is greater now than when I started these rants. That aforementioned Lula also currently offers Rushing Waters trout on the menu. Blackbird has walleye for dinner and seared whitefish on their lunch menu (believe me, good). Of course, I so miss Mado and the way they treated fresh water smelts like anchovies. With these things on the menu, we get a sense a place. Food that truly is local. That tastes of its locale. Anyways, I’ll leave the rest of this argument for some other post.
How about smoked fish. I find it a bit amusing that one can go all over the USA and be fed our local cuisine. In LA, Wexler’s Deli has been posting amazing pictures of our fish on their Instagram account (#smokefisheveryday). In New York, people are clamoring for all the freshwater fishes at Russ & Daughter’s Cafe (man I clammor in my dreams!). Coast to coast, they’re eating our food. Shouldn’t local smoked fishes be a bit more our thing?
There is no doubt that smoked lake fishes are widely available in the Chicago area. For one thing, you have all these people who’ve immigrated in recent years from Eastern Europe, Poland and Russia. They come from lands where octopus and kampachi rarely graced menus. So, go to an outstanding Polish deli, like Kolatek not too far from me, and (near the weekends mostly) you can get delicious house-smoked trout and whitefish. Or go to a grocery catering to Russian newcomers, like Fresh Farms for other smoked fish options. Then there are the Jews. Any extant deli in the Chicago area carries various smoked fishes. Also, don’t forget, our friends at Jake’s Country Meats. They carry some pretty cool local smoked fish, including rare to find, locally caught lake salmon. You can have local smoked fish, but do you?
Is it food for alter kockers and those with short ancestry in the USA? We can have it too. Do we celebrate it. Relish it. Shove it in the face of TV food crews the way we do italian beef, hot dogs and Burt’s deep-dish? Like I say, I get the impression they like our lake fish better away than here. We need to make smoked fish one of the true, respected Chi-CAW-go things. And there is no better place to start than at New York Bagel and Bialy’s in Lincolnwood. It is not critical to have a bagel with one’s smoked fish. In fact, a good pumpernickel or even those rye cracker thing-ee’s work well with smoked fish. Still, a bagel tastes very good with a nice whitefish salad. I’ve always found the bagels at NYB&B to far exceed anything else in Chicagoland. Their lox (or nova), on the other hand, not so exceeding. Good thing I discovered recently what Michael Morowitz has known for 25 years, the whitefish salad at NYB&B is excellent. I will say that I did not grow up a whitefish salad aficionado. In our lox box, there would be lox and a chub, but never whitefish salad. It was only when I went to that third bastion of great lake fish, North Miami Beach, did I discover, at Bagel Bar, not far from where my wife grew up, the pleasures of whitefish salad. Problem, I rarely find whitefish salad as good as Bagel Bar (can’t get Bagel Bar whitefish salad anymore either but that’s another story too.) It can be way too mayo-heavy, or mucked up with crap like celery. Like a good crab cake, the less of anything else, the better the whitefish salad. If you start at NYB&B, you’ll know what I mean, and you’ll know what I mean about eating more local smoked fish.