Joeyâ??s: A coastal fishing shack, right on Mineral Point Road.
The upper Midwest is about as far as you can get from the saltwater fisheries that provide North American restaurants with their seafood. But even land-locked folks get tired of steak, chicken, ribs and tofu loaf. Thanks to a network of fast, reliable seafood vendors with connections around the world, Madison restaurants have good access to every manner of fish and crustacean.
Granted, seafood often seems more tempting after you've watched it offloaded from picturesque fishing boats at some quaint saltwater port. But Madison diners need not wait for a trip to Cape Cod or Maui to enjoy the ocean's bounty mere hours after it's been snatched from the water.
Just having a line on Hawaiian ono, Pacific halibut or Dungeness crab guarantees nothing, of course. Today's customers expect the freshest ingredients from far-flung places, and so do local chefs. Xander Cameron, the youthful executive chef at the Capitol Square's seafood jewel box the Blue Marlin puts it this way: 'You have to be able to trust your supplier. I have one guy I deal with, and any question I have about what's available and what's in season, he can answer. But every once in a while the seafood company will try to sell you something that's not right, that's not fresh, and you have to send it back. It's a full-time job that way, being a chef.'
Joe Learned, head chef at the Square's other upscale fish house, the Ocean Grill, concurs that, in the end, getting the best product requires vigilance. 'You just have to take your time and tell your vendor what your standards are,' he avers.
A supporter of sustainable foodways, Cameron always keeps the depletion of the world's fisheries in mind when choosing fish. Drawing on updated resources like the Shedd Aquarium's 'Right Bite' list of depleted, threatened and reasonably abundant fish populations, he always tries to make responsible choices about what to serve. As a result, Atlantic halibut is off limits. So are Atlantic cod and the slow-to-breed Chilean sea bass (or Patagonian toothfish), a delectable species that became trendy in the 1980s and was seriously depleted as a result.
Still in his twenties, Cameron hired on at the Blue Marlin about a year after it changed ownership in 2005. Having apprenticed at both Restaurant Muramoto and Restaurant Magnus, two sophisticated kitchens that know their way around a quality piece of fish, he was more than ready to put his own stamp on a staple of Madison's upscale dining scene.
Thanks to his training, Cameron is a stickler when it comes to freshness. Freezing techniques have improved significantly over the years (in 2004 The New York Times' Julia Moskin revealed that even top sushi-grade tuna is routinely frozen), but Cameron says he simply won't use frozen fish, which means new orders must be delivered nearly every day of the a week. Shellfish is another matter; at the Blue Marlin, scallops, lobster and shrimp often have seen the inside of a freezer.
Farmed saltwater fish are another no-no for Cameron. He'll purchase farmed sturgeon because the fish is endangered, but he rejects cage-raised salmon for ecological, health and culinary reasons. 'I'm not going to order fish that's fed pellets and growth hormones and who knows what else,' he says disdainfully, adding that wild-caught fish simply have better texture and flavor.
The Ocean Grill's Learned isn't nearly as leery of farmed product, but he also makes a point of following what's in season, and he does reject some farmed fare on the basis of quality. 'For mainstream stuff, I don't see any reason that farmed is any different,' he argues. 'But when you get into stuff like coho or sockeye salmon or Alaskan halibut, I only serve it here if it's wild.'
The Blue Marlin's menu changes as fish and other seafood come into season. Cameron always keeps the restaurant's namesake fish on the menu, and bouillabaisse made from the day's freshest offerings is also a mainstay. But beyond those constraints, he has as much freedom as he can handle.
On a recent visit to the Marlin's small, lively dining room, I sampled, among other things, a light local rainbow trout stuffed with a rich smoked pheasant, seared scallops paired with earthy wild mushrooms, and a flaky opakapaka (pink Pacific snapper) nestled on a flavorful bed of quinoa and root vegetables and roused with a restrained anchovy sauce.
Each dish was artfully arranged on the plate and bountiful enough to satisfy all but the largest Badgerland appetites. Indeed, Cameron's blind four-course chef's tasting (it changes daily) would be food enough for a pair of moderate eaters.
More important, Cameron doesn't bring together exotic ingredients just to make some splashy statement about global culinary 'fusion.' On that night, the lion's share of his choices made sense in terms of texture and taste.
Two and a half blocks away at the Ocean Grill, Learned's menu also plays with food pairings. On a cool March night, I found a lightly battered fried calamari crisp and sweet and perfectly fine on its own with some salt and pepper. But the Ocean Grill's preparation didn't stop there. The deep-fried tentacles rested in a deeply colored plum sauce and were also accompanied by a small ramekin of Asian-style peanut sauce. The flavors of the sauces didn't clash, but neither seemed completely necessary.
Conversely, the citrus-flavored hollandaise (or 'Maltese sauce') that accompanied Learned's expertly fried crab and shrimp croquettes made this unexpectedly light appetizer sing.
Fish takes two forms at the Ocean Grill. You can order it as a more elaborate entree (e.g., strawberry-stuffed sea bass finished with champagne cream). You can also have it broiled or sautÃed and accompanied by one of the restaurant's seven sauces. I opted for the latter approach for my broiled grouper fillet and wasn't disappointed. It was moist and meaty, and the chef had taken care not to let it toughen.
A firm, flaky striped sea bass was even better and bore the subtle hint of the fire on which it was cooked. My wife and I added a side of pomegranate barbecue sauce for the sea bass and a citrus ginger sauce for the grouper. Once again, the seafood held its own; neither sauce was essential.
These days the Ocean Grill's high-ceilinged, contemporary space is also a prime destination for champagne lovers. Learned keeps over two dozen bubblies at the bar, and the restaurant maintains a list of fresh oysters with which they can be matched. I must confess that I passed on both during our meal, but the smorgasbord of fizz and bivalves definitely adds an element of fun to the place.
When the upscale steakhouse chain Fleming's opened a new restaurant in the Hilldale area, west-siders quickly embraced the clubby temple of beef and its capacious wood-paneled dining rooms. Many come for the impressive steaks and the restaurant's tome-size wine list, but the seafood selection is impressive, too.
Naturally, an iced shrimp cocktail and a steak and lobster 'surf and turf' combo are on offer. But Fleming's menu doesn't stop at those steakhouse classics. The chain boasts that it flies its fish in daily, and everything from seared ahi tuna to Alaskan king crab are available throughout the year.
On the night I visited the hopping Hilldale restaurant, Fleming's featured several seafood specials. I opted for a firm piece of amber jack brushed with a garlic and citrus glaze and was surprised by its quality. At some steakhouses, the fish on the menu is an afterthought, a sop to patrons who can't or won't eat red meat. That's not the case here.
Still, Fleming's fish entrees aren't what literally turn patrons' heads. That distinction belongs to the restaurant's signature appetizer, the 'chilled seafood tower,' a vertical cornucopia piled with lobster tail, shrimp, crab legs and anything else that happens to be in season. My order came with small containers of ceviche and very good marinated calamari. However, the succulent crustaceans were the main show. The chilled Alaskan crab, which our waiter explained was taken from the upper joint of the leg, was among the best I've eaten.
At $57 for the two-person dish, the seafood tower isn't an appetizer that one would order weekly. But it leaves an impression that few shrimp cocktails ever will.
The chain's lobster tempura appetizer is another pleasurable experience worth repeating. The golden, battered pieces of lobster tail are remarkably sweet, and the hot mustard sauce that accompanied my order added some pleasant mouth-burn.
What about less expensive eats plucked from the sea? Captain Bill's, a fixture of Middleton's dining scene for years, is an obvious choice. The rustic interior overflows with nautical and marine signifiers, including an enormous polished brass ship's searchlight, weathered pilings, mounted fish and a full-size hammerhead shark hanging from the ceiling. And the menu is just as bountiful. Whether you're craving thick, filling clam chowder, crunchy coconut shrimp, fluffy crab cakes or a piece of broiled mahi mahi prepared with a Mexican flair, Captain Bill's has you covered. The menu notes that several items have been featured on the Food Network (including their signature New England-style chowder), and that's certainly a hook. But one of the best reasons to take the trip out to Middleton is the restaurant's location overlooking Lake Mendota. It's not right on the water, but it's close enough for fantasists to imagine that the powerboats bobbing out on the lake are trawling for the evening's meal. And when the weather's fine, Captain Bill's outdoor deck is one of the best places in the area to enjoy a couple of cool cocktails.
Madison is also now home to a branch of Joey's Seafood & Grill, a moderately priced seafood chain that's based, in of all places, St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Madison Joey's is decorated to look like a coastal fishing shack and sports a couple big blackboards chalked with featured items. The menu is enormous, the service is fast, and while the cook's deep-frier gets a workout, diners in search of simply prepared fish are not forgotten. Mahi mahi, Pacific halibut and salmon are all available sans batter.
The mixed grill of shrimp, mahi and halibut I ordered for my introductory meal at Joey's wasn't overcooked, and the cocktail sauce that came with the shrimp contained a satisfying jolt of horseradish. If you crave a quick piece of broiled fish, the restaurant is a reasonable option.
Joey's is very big on sides. Spicy hushpuppies, creamy coleslaw, the requisite french fries, beans and rice, corn muffins ' the list goes on and on. You won't go away hungry from the place, a big part of the chain's appeal.
What can a Midwestern seafood lover do to keep the seafood she loves from being depleted? I'd suggest a quick study of a resource like the Shedd Aquarium's 'Right Bite' list (www.sheddaquarium.org/pdf/ cons_rightbite_seafood_card.pdf) to make certain that you're not adding to the problem by consuming depleted species. It's not a big thing, and if more of us do it, folks around the globe will be enjoying halibut, cold-water lobster and mahi-mahi for generations to come.