Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 27, 2011
07:06 AMSmall Dishes
Seeing More Seafood
No doubt you’ve heard the joke, “I’m on the seafood diet … I see food and I eat it. Actually, I could very well subsist on a seafood diet—fresh fish and shellfish. I’m known to go on the lobster roll diet when I go to Cape Cod and the oyster diet when I go to New Orleans. I just can’t get enough, but I should start at the beginning.
Growing up, in the center of the country far away from the bounty of the ocean was limiting to say the least. When I lived in Kentucky, I enjoyed fried catfish and fried oysters and still do to this day. Moving to Wisconsin, local lake fish—perch and walleye most likely—at the Friday night fish fry were a weekly rendezvous. I also remember occasionally seeing other lake fish: salmon, whitefish and trout. And, of course, shrimp cocktails and South African rock lobster tail were staples on the supper club menu of that era. The most exotic fish experience in town back then was at the Hoffman House. A real stream ran through its rustic Paul Bunyan Room, affording diners the opportunity to net their own rainbow trout.
As a kid, I remember the only seafood store in town was Goeden’s located on University Avenue. This was before it went into the restaurant business and the small fish market connected with a grocery next door. The offerings were limited—mostly the lake fish I’ve already mentioned. I only went there in the winter with my father to get oysters which my mother would then fry. She didn’t—as she was fond to say—eat “swimmers” but would accommodate the rest of the family’s fondness for the briny mollusks.
After a trip to Chicago and enjoying my first whole Maine lobster, I wondered what had become of all the claws—the best part—from all those lobster tails I had heretofore consumed? Only much later would I learn that rock lobsters (or spiny lobsters) are actually crayfish which aren’t closely related to true lobsters and have no claws.
Vacations in Florida and on the East and West Coasts would further fuel my passion for seafood. I discovered new delicacies: abalone in San Francisco, swordfish in Miami and blue fish on Nantucket. Being foods I couldn’t enjoy at home only enhanced their desirability.
For the most part, the availability and variety of seafood in Madison has greatly improved in the subsequent years. There certainly is a lot more of it available. Lobster tails aren’t nearly as popular as they once were no doubt because of their high price. Fried perch and walleye still rule on Friday night but are rarely “all you can eat” as was once the norm. Nowadays, most upscale restaurants serve at least salmon or tuna and many other varieties of seafood increasingly appear as well. The advent of restaurants that focus mainly on the quality preparation of a diverse array of fish and shellfish dishes is the most welcome change of all.
The Blue Marlin. An off-the-Square trouper, this restaurant shook things ups when it opened, becoming the first restaurant locally to take fresh fish beyond the frying pan and broiler. Imaginative preparations attractively presented still grace the menu today. Choices change about every three months, but it’s a sure bet that that you’ll find blue marlin among them.
Tempest Oyster Bar. This is the latest endeavor of Henry Doane (Tornado Steakhouse, Orpheum Lobby Restaurant) who was one of the original partners when the Blue Marlin opened. It’s also Madison’s first oyster bar, though many places about town serve the bivalves and Liliana’s features a separate seasonal oyster menu. Beside the outstanding raw bar, dinner at Tempest affords a tempting pick from the sea’s harvest, creatively and skillfully prepared..
Captain Bill’s. Over the years, many local eateries have indulged in a nautical theme, but their food for the most part was like most other supper clubs. Opened by the Von Rutenburg family (Mariner’s Inn, Nau-Ti-Gal, Betty Lou Cruises), Captain Bill’s was the first to specialize in seafood and aims today to have something to please just about everyone. A long list of classics include clam chowder, crab cakes, pan-fried walleye, lobster tail and king crab.
Joey’s Seafood and Grill. It began life as a part of a chain; when the franchise folded, owners Keith and Erin Stoesz decided to keep their restaurant open. Since then, their taste has taken over the menu and made the place a popular Westside bistro. From New England clam chowder and catfish to fish tacos and snow crab legs, the flavor is All-American. Fish fry every night includes a choice of haddock, cod, lake perch, or Alaskan halibut; sized to suit.
Restaurant Muramoto and Sushi Muramoto. Technically, not a seafood restaurant per se, but so much of the good that happens here centers focuses on fine fresh fish. The sushi of course is inspired, but the likes of crab croquettes with onkatsu sauce and seaweed mayo, or miso-marinated black cod with grilled baby bok choy are equally exotic and delectable.
Southern-Style Fried Oysters
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
Corn flour (or masa harina)
1 pint shucked, frying-size oysters (medium to large)
Peanut oil for frying
Cocktail Sauce or Tartar Sauce
In a small deep bowl beat together the eggs and cream to combine. Set aside. Combine the flour and Creole seasoning in a large plastic bag. Set aside. Put the corn flour in a large plastic bag. Set aside.
Drain the oysters. One at a time, shake the oysters in seasoned flour. Then dip in the egg wash, using a slotted spoon to make sure the entire surface of the oyster is covered. Draining off any excess egg, shake in the Fish Fri and transfer to a wax paper-lined baking sheet or platter.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 425 degrees (or the maximum temperature).
Add half the oysters to the fryer and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Fry the oysters for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer the fried oysters to a paper towel lined baking sheet and keep warm in the preheated 200-degree oven while frying the rest of the oysters.
Salt the oysters to taste and immediately serve with lemon wedges, Cocktail Sauce or Tartar Sauce.
Serves 2 to 4 (6 to 12 oysters per person).