I can’t believe it has been over year since our last visit to GT Fish & Oyster Bar. Surely you all remember the amazing blog article I wrote about it then. It’s a terrific place for all kinds of seafood cooked (or not) in a variety of ways.
For those of you with a short attention span, the Reader’s Digest version of our visit this time goes like this: just as good as last time, which is to say, terrific food and service.
For those of you with attention spans longer than a goldfish, please read on!
My first blog about this restaurant, GT Fish & Oyster Bar, Chicago, June 2014, provides background information on the Boka Restaurant Group (of which GT is a part) and Chef Giuseppe Tentori (The GT in GT Fish & Oyster). If you are not familiar with the chef or the group, do take a few minutes to learn more about them as they are major players in the Chicago restaurant scene.
Back to our more recent visit. The restaurant is a bright, fairly open space on the corner of Wells and Grand in Chicago. Big windows and high ceilings make it feel even bigger than it actually is. There is a terrific bar area as you walk in with the fresh oysters sitting right there to welcome you. (I am not sure why the oysters welcome the people who are about to eat them, but oyster brains are pretty small, I guess).
If you are not up for a full dinner (or can’t get a reservation, which is often the case on weekends) snag a seat at the bar if you can. Cocktails here are terrific and you can order lots of tasty small plates and watch the game while you eat. This includes, of course, a daily selection of fresh oysters.
For the most part, people either love oysters and slurp them down by the dozen, or hate them and leave the room screaming when they are served (OK, slight exaggeration there). I fall into a place in between. I like 3 or 4 oysters as an appetizer, then I am done. Purists eat them plain or, at most, with a squirt of lemon. I’ll usually eat one plain and, if offered (as they usually are) one with some mignonette and one with some cocktail sauce. In this way, I manage to offend just about everyone, whether they love oysters, hate oysters, or can only eat them smothered in sauce.
A classic French mignonette sauce is made simply by whisking together finely chopped shallots, freshly cracked ground back pepper and a fairly mild vinegar, such as a champagne or rice wine vinegar. Culinary creativity is boundless, however, and the many types of vinegar, alone or in combinations, might be used. All or part of the vinegar may be replaced with lemon, lime or another citrus. In this case, the popular Japanese condiment Ponzu is used. Classic Ponzu is made by simmering mirin (sweet rice wine), rice wine vinegar, dried tuna flakes and dried seaweed. The juice of a tart Japanese citrus fruit called yuzu is added the cooled and strained liquid. Soy sauce is often added to make Ponzu shōyu, but the mixture is also generally just called Ponzu. Most of us don’t have dried tuna, dried seaweed or yuzu fruit in our pantries, but that’s OK. There are a million variations, adding various combination of lemon, lime or other citrus juices, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes for heat, etc.
Of course there is no shame in keeping a bottle of supermarket Ponzu on hand. In fact it’s a good idea. Experiment with splashing it in and on various dishes and you’ll find many that it really livens up. I like the Yakami Orchard brand better than the ubiquitous Kikkoman than can be found in almost any grocery store, but it’s very much a matter of taste.
The bulk of the menu at GT is made up of a selection of mostly small plates that you can enjoy all by yourself or that are easily shared. You can think of it as a tapas concept or a “roll your own tasting menu” idea. Either way, it works for Valeria and me as we generally like to try different things and share. On the other hand, sometimes one of us wants to try something the other doesn’t; no problem.
A good approach here is to order two or three plates and an appropriate beverage (or two), then nibble, sip and talk for a while. Bonus points if you keep your phone out-of-sight and actually talk to your companion(s). Penalty points if you are more engaged in social media that with the people at your table. (No penalty if you are dining alone.) We started by ordering three dishes: one that was not on the menu the last time we visited, one that was there but we did not order, and one that we enjoyed last time.
The new dish was the GT Deviled Egg.
I am a huge fan of deviled eggs (still looking for some as good as Mom used to make—my sister comes pretty close). Surprise! There are no eggs in these “deviled eggs”—but I have no complaints. The “egg whites” are smoked salmon mousse and the “yolks” are salmon roe. A sprinkle of chives and you have a creamy, smokey, delicious dish with lovely texture from the roe. “Roe,” of course, is pretty much synonymous with “caviar,” and refers to, in simplest terms, fish eggs. Traditionally, caviar is made from the eggs of the sturgeon by curing them with salt. The two terms are regulated (or unregulated) differently in different countries, so they are often used interchangeably. Most restaurants in the US use “caviar” to refer to the traditional sturgeon product and “roe” for other types of fish eggs, but the use does vary.
The “Deviled Eggs” are served over a glass containing a small shot of house-made caraway liqueur or, as our friends in Scandinavia would call it, aquavit. I worked for a Norwegian company for over 6 years and spent a lot of time in Sweden and Norway where aquavit is an integral part of social toasting and holiday drinking. The name is derived from the Latin aqua vitae (water of life) just as whiskey (or whisky) is derived from the gaelic uisge beatha, which also means “water of life.” You may be more familiar with gin, which is a neutral spirit (vodka, basically) flavored with herbs and flowers, dominated by juniper. Aquavit is similar, but the dominant flavor is usually caraway, although a variety of spices and herbs can play a starring role in the flavors of aquavit depending on which country it is made in. Unlike gin, aquavit is often aged in oak barrels, and the most traditional way of making it is to age it in oak barrels on ships that make a round trip from Norway to Australia and back again.
Because it has such a wide range of flavor profiles, aquavit can be paired with different foods, much like wine. The Grand Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden, does an amazing weekend brunch that offers many traditional Swedish dishes and an array of aquavits to match. Valeria and I tried it one cold, damp November Sunday several years ago. We asked our waiter to help us pair the food and aquavit. It was really interesting, but we needed a nap when we were done! Aquavit is much stronger than wine (typically around 40% alcohol versus 15% for wine). Even though it is served in small shots to sip with your meal, it adds up.
GT’s version was totally authentic. It was cold and caraway dominated the aromas and flavors. The dish could easily have been on the brunch buffet in Sweden, so the pairing was also perfect.
Until recently, there were only one or two brands of aquavit that were distributed in the US, but the selection has broadened some and artisanal distillers are making aquavit here at home. North Shore Distillery makes a good one just a few miles away from my home north of Chicago. However, if you really want to taste the full range, you’ll have to head to Scandinavia where some lists will contain dozens of choices. You can find a nice article with more information on how aquavit is used in the US here.
Sticking to the “raw food” theme of the first two dishes, we sampled Sunfish Ceviche with tarragon chimichurri and pickled garlic next.
This item was on the menu last year, but we didn’t try it. Ceviche, as you may know, is a dish made primarily with fresh fish and/or shellfish that has been “cooked” in citrus juice. The fish is not actually heated, but allowed to marinate in the acidic juice for a while before serving. The acid breaks down the protein in the fish in a way that is similar to what heat does when fish is cooked. The fish is cut into bite sized pieces, mixed with various vegetables such as onions, corn and cilantro. Chile peppers are also a core ingredient, but the type and heat vary widely. All of the ingredients are allowed to marinate in lime juice for a while so the flavors can marry and to firm up and “cook” the flesh.
Ceviche is very popular in the coastal regions of Mexico, Central and South America. The limes used are not the big Persian limes that are commonly found in US supermarkets, but a smaller version very similar, if not identical, to the key limes used to make amazing key lime pies in Florida. My most memorable ceviches have mostly been in made in Lima, Peru, but your taste and mileage may vary. Here is a great background article on ceviche that includes links to recipes for some common styles.
GT’s ceviche was unlike any other I have had. It had all the classic components, but with twists. Sunfish (a huge, bony ocean fish) is not a typical ingredient, but it was fresh and delicious. Pickled garlic not only added garlic flavor, but some extra crunch as well as a little acidic kick. Instead or tortilla chips for dipping up the ceviche, there were tortilla “strings” (for lack of a better word) to add crunch and flavor to the dish. Finally, using a chimichurri sauce as the marinade was brilliant.
Chimichurri is a flavorful green sauce that originated in Argentina, where they use it on their delicious grilled beef and in many other dishes. Traditionally, it is made by chopping up a bunch of parley, oregano, garlic, onions and/or chiles, then adding olive oil and a splash of vinegar to make a sauce. Using a blender or food processor, this is a snap to make and adds a ton of flavor to anything it touches. You can grab a typical recipe here.
GT got creative with their chimichurri, swapping out the oregano for tarragon. This produced a softer flavor profile that is (arguably) better suited for fish. Since we love the flavor and aroma of fresh tarragon, this was a winner with Valeria and me.
Next up: fried squash blossoms stuffed with shrimp, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.
The blossoms of just about any summer squash are edible, but I have seen zucchini blossoms at farmer’s markets and on menus 95% of the time. I’m guessing that is because zucchini plants are so darn prolific that, even if you pick half the blossoms and cook them, you will still have too many zucchini in the end!
I have enjoyed them all over South America and in Mexico, as well as in Italy, France and Spain. Also in the US, of course, and perhaps other places I just don’t remember. Despite having eaten them all over the world, I mentally associate them with Italian cooking, though I have no idea what cuisine they first appeared in. They are often stuffed with cheese (sweet or savory) that may (or may not) have been mixed with meat or vegetables or whatever the chef decided to add. The stuffed blossoms can be coated in a light batter and deep-fried or baked in the oven. The petals can be cut up and tossed over pasta as a garnish or cooked into a pasta sauce. In Mexico, they are often used as part of the filling in a quesadilla.
For this dish, the blossoms were stuffed with mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Who doesn’t like gooey melted mozzarella? OK, it doesn’t have a lot of flavor, so let’s add some sun-dried tomatoes, which have a ton of flavor, and some pine nuts, which have both flavor and crunch, and you’re on a roll. The light, tempura-style batter was crunchy and added yet another layer of texture. The squash blossom itself does not have all that much flavor, but, then, neither does zucchini. Perhaps they are popular because they are a really good excuse to eat cheese. 🙂
The next dish is a favorite of mine, fish tacos.
Tacos have been the “Mexican sandwich” on the street for hundreds of years. Take a soft corn or (more recently) flour tortilla, fill it with whatever meat, vegetables, fish, cheese or whatever, roll it up and walk on. It’s a perfect street food and a good tortilla is a nice change from bread.
The ubiquitous Americanized, Tex-Mex version with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce and cheese, diced tomatoes and onions, all flavored with some salsa, guacamole and a dollop of sour cream in a hard taco shell can be perfectly delicious when well made—and perfectly abysmal when made on the cheap at fast food emporiums (yo no quiero Taco Bell). That should not put you off from tacos make with high-quality tortillas and stuffed with really flavorful ingredients.
Fish tortillas are said to have originated in Baja California, the northernmost state of Mexico, specifically in the city of Ensenada. As with many popular dishes, there are lots of opinions on what constitutes an “authentic” original fish taco recipe. There is a reasonable consensus that they were first made with a light, flakey white fish cut into strips and dipped in a batter (probably a beer batter), deep-fried and wrapped in a corn tortilla with shredded cabbage, some kind of salsa and a drizzle of Mexican crema (Mexico’s version of crème fraîche or sour cream). I won’t pretend to know what the original recipe was, but I will share links to two recipes with you.
The first is from Rick Bayless, the Chicago-based chef who has spent his life studying and popularizing Mexican cuisine. If you’re idea of Mexican food is Taco Bell, you owe it to yourself to visit one or more of his restaurants if you are in Chicago. His flagship restaurant is Topolobampo, which is a high-end establishment that can be very hard to get reservations for. The more relaxed Frontera Grill is a little easier to get into and no less delicious. Xoxo does not take reservations and serves primarily street foods and snacks, much of which is designed for carry out and eating on the go. Here is the detailed recipe for his Classic Ensenada Fish Tacos which you can watch him making with his daughter, Lanie in this video clip:
Chef Bayless is something of a Renaissance man, having also co-written and starred in a play called Cascabel, and is an Arthur Murray-trained ballroom dancer who won a local “Dancing with the Stars”-type competition for a local charity. His cookbooks are a must if you want to create Mexican dishes as authentically as possible outside of Mexico.
An even simpler recipe for fish tacos comes from Food Network’s Marcella Valladolid, who was born in Ensenada. The printed recipe for her Baja-Style Fish Tacos is only a click away and you can see her make them in this video.
The recipes in her cookbooks tends to be simpler and less “chefy” than Rick Bayless’s.
I’ve tried both recipes, and they are both delicious—Rick’s a bit more complicated to make and a bit more complex in flavor, Marcella’s easier but still very tasty. You can, of course, play around with the sauces and toppings of either recipe to suit yourself and your own tastes.
Many people turn to fish tacos as a “healthier” alternative and want to avoid deep frying the fish. No problem! Grilled fish work perfectly. Here is both a video and a detailed recipe for Bobby Flay’s Fish Tacos. I have made this version, too. Delicioso.
Oh, sorry! I am a fan of fish tacos and got a bit carried away there. Let’s get back to GT. Nicely grilled fish here that had been marinated in some garlic, then was joined on the corn tortilla by some chipotle aioli and crushed pork chicharron (you can make the chicharron if you want, but I’ll just buy a bag of pork rinds ?). Aioli (basically garlic flavored mayonnaise) makes almost anything taste better; add some smoky, spicy chipotle peppers (smoked jalapeños) and taste buds start to dance. The greens are a mixture of cabbage, arugula and maybe a little lettuce. Finally, sprinkle some crushed pork chicharron (fried pork rinds) on top for some extra flavor and crunch and you have a really tasty fish taco.
Branzino (aka European sea bass, Mediterranean sea bass, loup de mer) is a sustainable, mild-flavored white fish that takes well to stuffing with all sorts of herbs and citrus and grilling whole. GT serves a neatly filleted version with some delicious accompaniments.
The fish was perfectly cooked and rested on agnolotti (a ravioli variation from the Piedmont region of Italy) that had been filled with sweet corn purée. The red bell pepper sauce added some nice color and flavor, while the broccoli added nice texture and color. The hearts of palm added subtle flavor and yet another texture. This was a really nice dish where each component added with nothing overwhelming the flavors and textures.
One of the great pleasures of a summer trip to Maine is stopping by a roadside stand fro a lobster roll. GT offers one that has made it to the top of several lists of “Best Lobster Roll in Chicago.”
I don’t put a lot of faith in “Best of” lists, but there is a reason this one is often listed as one of the best in the city. The bun is from the Labriola Baking Company, which makes bread products for a number of the best restaurants in town. Buttered and grilled, it holds the stuffing together but does not get in the way of the lobster that is the star of this show. The lobster is perfectly cooked and enrobed in a house-made herb mayo that compliments the meat. A little celery for crunch and there you go.
As good as the lobster roll is, I have to confess I love the onion strings at least as much. I like onion strings (not rings) that are very lightly battered and deep fried—just like these. Not health food, but I love them.
A small bowl of pickled vegetables and grapes was served as a side and they are quite tasty, but, c’mon, does anybody order this dish for the veggies?
At this point, we were pretty full, but I wanted to try one Not Fish dish, so I ordered the Crispy Chicken Thigh with zucchini latke, shiitake and smoked buttermilk dressing.
Maybe I was just too full to fully appreciate the dish, but it seemed anti-climactic after all the others. They put a nice crispy skin on the thigh and it was pretty juicy, but not highly flavorful. The zucchini latke similarly was not too flavorful and a bit gummy. I’m sure non-fish eaters appreciate having these options but, for me at least, lesson learned: GT Fish and Oyster is for fish and oysters!
I have heard rave reviews of the desserts here from some friends and also seen very positive comments on line, but, for the second time, we were just too full to want dessert.
So, we once again left very happy with our meal. This is not a place for fast food or if you are on a tight budget, but for outstanding seafood in a casual setting where you can share plates and drinks with friends, you will be hard pressed to do better.
GT Fish and Oyster Bar
Address: 531 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: (312) 929-3501
Dress Code: Casual Elegant
Price Range: $31—$50
Hours: Sunday-Wednesday: 4:30pm-10:00pm, Oyster Bar open until 11:00pm
Thursday-Saturday: 4:30pm-11:00pm, Oyster Bar open until midnight
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All images were taken with a Sony A6000 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F4 ZA OSS lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop with Nik/Google plugins.