This winter has been a fairly busy business travel season for me given my job and deeper involvement within my profession. Since January, I’ve been to Marco Island, Boston, Washington DC and more recently this week, Atlantic City (as a matter of fact, as of this posting I’m stranded at the Downtown Philadelphia Marriott due to the winter ice/snow storm which has shut the airport down). Each these destinations all have something in common… proximity to fresh seafood. Having lived landlocked my entire life, fresh seafood has always been both an exciting and welcome presence.
As a kid growing up in Kentucky, I can still remember J.R.’s Seafood Market, which was open for a couple of years specializing in fresh seafood. The owner drove to Florida once and sometimes twice a week to bring everything back on ice. I can close my eyes and envision walking through the door with the tiny bell lightly banging against the glass. The open cases tastily displayed the relatively fresh variety gentled resting upon the crushed ice. The smell always surprised me as it was not the expected “not-so-fresh” fish aroma, but a welcome sweet and rich smell which almost made me feel as though I was in Florida for a moment.
For years, any trip which has taken me near fresh seafood has resulted in dining options revolving around anything that was fresh and local. My wife can attest in telling you horror stories of a trip to France (Paris and Reims) a couple of years ago in which I developed a love for the famous and sometimes “infamous” cold seafood platters consisting of a variety of sea life you simply do not see here. All I can say is what appeared on the platter made her a bit queezy. I had another word to describe it… delicious.
If you ever have the opportunity to try Dublin Prawn, don’t pass it up. The closer I’ve gotten to truly fresh fish the more I’ve developed a strong appreciation for extremely fresh fish. If you ever pay a visit to Dublin, Ireland be sure to hop on the DART (Dublin’s cross between CTA and Metra) and take the short and ridiculously inexpensive ride out to Howth. Howth is located on the other end of a long peninsula a short distance outside of Dublin, but once you are there you feel as though you are worlds apart. Famous for it’s fresh fish, marina/pier full of fishing boats, a fresh fish market and plenty of wonderful restaurants serving the local catch up the hill in the quaint little village which overlooks the sea. We took a day trip out to Howth early in the morning during our visit and had lunch at a wonderful little place called Ella (http://www.ellawinebar.com/). I, of course, had the Hake (fresh catch of the day) which did not have to travel any farther than up the hill from the local pier. The staff was incredibly friendly and arriving shortly after they opened provided us the opportunity to visit with some of the locals who had dropped in for an early lunch.
Howth, Ireland – Photo by Stuart Meyer
Though I have traveled a bit and experienced fresh local seafood in a variety of locations, I feel compelled to give genuine props to Naperville’s seafood institutions. Even though we are land-locked in the Midwest, there are some local establishments that go to great lengths to bring the delicious fresh catch to us. Though there are a number of seafood options in Naperville which I hav tried, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a couple of my personal favorites.
Catch Thirty-Five (www.catch35.com)
Located at the corner of Washington Street and Van Buren near the heart of downtown Naperville, Catch opened up a few short years ago. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first as Catch’s original location is in downtown Chicago at 35 East Wacker (Leo Burnett building). A particular member of my family, who will not be named, works in the building and did not have many good things to say. Nonetheless, I can recall my good friend Matt Freeman taking me there for lunch one day shortly after they opened up shop in Naperville and I was sold. Not only does Catch focus on the flown-in fresh catch, but they apply an optional asian spin which brings the taste buds alive with rich aroma and flavor. The perfectly cooked seared scallops with Szechwan glaze are a must and are accompanied with a pan fried chive pot sticker. For the main entree, take your choice. Personally, I love the sushi-grade grilled tuna (make it rare) or the sea bass. Favorites also include the fresh oysters and crab bisque. For those with seafood aversions, I first over my deepest condolences, second I would say have no fears as Catch also features what I consider to be the best steaks in Naperville. Beyond food, the wine list is ample and given the four or five times I’ve eaten there, service is both knowledgable and attentive. Dessert is a hit or miss, but includes some terrific options. The key lime pie is made with real key limes and the sinful flourless chocolate cake is my wife’s favorite. On my most recent visit I ordered the Pecan Tart and was quite disappointed and filled with regret for not having gone with my instinct in ordering the key lime pie. Oh well, there’s always next time. Also on our most recent visit, we took my wife’s Aunt who was in town from Maryland and she was both suprisingly impressed. The following week I was in D.C. and met her and Shebly’s Uncle for dinner at Pesci on Embassy Row and I must say the fish at Catch was just as good if not better. The atmosphere is elegant and I couldn’t imagine bringing the kids along, but Catch is all about adults gathering together to celebrate life, great food, delicious wine and, of course, Naperville! I’ve never met the owner or Executive Chef of Catch, but I must say… keep up the good work!
Chinns 34th Street Fishery (www.chinns-fishery.com)
Right after you cross the Naperville/Lisle border, if you listen close you can still hear the sound of jet engines ringing in the waters of lobster tank and the look of jet lag in the eyes of the fish at Chinns. As the daily air freight bills posted at the entrance suggest, Chinns is committed to nothing less than the freshest fish and seafood. I put Chinns in a much different league from Catch, namely becuase their focus is unpretentiously delicious fresh seafood and opts for comfortly casual versus elegant. No offense to all the fresh fish waiting to be eaten before the next plane lands, but when I go to Chinns I have only one thing on my mind… LOBSTER! Fresh, big and filled with crabmeat stuffing. Amazingly, Chinns offers a 2 lb. live Maine tank lobster for $29.99. Add a couple of bucks and they’ll fill the cavity with their delicious crabmeat stuffing. By comparison, I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago at Legal Seafood and noticed their 2 lb. Maine lobsters were going for $60!?!? despite the fact their lobsters didn’t have to get there on a plane… they could just swim there right into the tank. Don’t miss Chinn’s lobster bisque as well, though I’ll warn you to not try to eat the entire bowl as it is rich and filling. Be careful not to burn your fingers when their red hot over fresh garlic rolls arrive floating on a sea of oil and garlic. I promise you leave Chinns stuffed to the “gills” as if some sort of food jet lag had been transferred from the fresh catch. Much of their fish comes from Hawaii and includes out-of-the-ordinary varieties which my wife has tried and raves about. To get to Chinns, head east on Ogden Avenue and you will find the non-descipt building just over the Naperville/Lisle border on the left not too far after Naperville Road.
Fabian Seafood (www.fabianseafood.com)
If you find Fabian Seafood, you won’t be walking into a restaurant, rather you will be standing at the back of a truck at Fifth Street Station on any given weekend starting in early spring through the summer. Purveyors of the freshest seafood, Fabian is located in Galveston, TX. Lucky for us, they make the weekly trip during the summer to the Naperville Farmer’s Market at Fifth Street Station and bring the local catch from the Gulf of Mexico. Amazing jumbo shrimp which must be smelled for their fresh sweetness to be believed as well as fresh pints of shucked oysters, crawfish, lump crabmeat and occaisionally fish will be found fresh on ice. On major tip, if you want to catch the best that Fabian has to offer, plan to arrive early on Saturday as they do sometimes run out. Additionally, everything they bring is seasonal so they won’t have the same variety every weekend… especially when it comes to the jumbo shrimp and oysters. My recommendation, grill the oysters on a nice charcoal and mesquite wood fire. As for the oysters, fry them up and indulge in their fresh sweet flavor. Though I’ve gotten to know the crew that makes the trip each week through purchases, I don’t know their names but want to thank them for making the weekly trip.
KIKU Japaneese Steakhouse and Sushi (www.mykiku.com)
Located in an unsuspecting space as if some sort of “speakeasy” hideaway training facility for theatrical hibatchi iron chef-like gladiators in the Menards strip mall on Aurora Avenue, you will be fooled by what you find once inside of KiKu. First, it is a beautiful restaurant on the inside and something you wouldn’t expect to find looking at it from the outside. Kiku is a fusion between the traditional theatrical hibatchi style of cooking and a sushi bar. While the hibatchi cooking is both entertaining and delicious, when I think Kiku all I can think about is sushi. Not just your usually high grade fresh rolls and sashimi but interesting and artfully prepared specialties which will make your taste buds explode like a cadence of tyco drums. My favorites are the spicy tuna rolls and the dynamite rolls, which combines lobster, scallops and I believe shrimp. Also, don’t miss their legendary Gozilla Roll. Whether you are into Sake or not, Kiku offers and wonderful array of Sake wines to suit any pallet. Don’t be afraid to ask for a consult if you aren’t familiar with the different varieties of Sake. While Kiku is my favorite place for sushi, I must regretably say that the service lacks a bit to be desired and they consistently have fallen short of making me feel welcome. If they can improve upon this area and add a little warmth I believe Kiku could expand it’s loyal following. Having observed with great interest my entire life the way restaurants can make loyal customers feel almost like family, it is always a good business practice. I always want to know how I get the hug or warm acknowledging hand shake from the owner at the end of the meal right before I make my exit. When exiting Kiku, usually unnoticed, I circumvent my disappointment by heading down to Menards to engage with the employees in a couple of choruses of their mind-warping jingle… you know.. “Save big money at Menardddddssss”. Darn it, I just plugged Menards beacause of their annoying jingle. As we all know, people don’t want to feel like simple customers satisfying hunger, they like to think of their favorite restaurants as almost an extension of themselves and their own families. Even more, restaurants achieve invaluable authentic word-of-mouth marketing this way. Food for thought if anyone from KiKu happen to tune into this post.
Well there you have it… a quick summary of why I think Naperville really is a great catch for seafood despite our geography. Please feel free to share your own comments and experiences on this posting below. As for me, I think I’ll head down to the sushi bar to sooth my stomach after the Philly Steak sandwich I had for lunch.