Octopus salad with sun-dried tomatoes, gigante beans and parsley
When it comes to dining out, like many things in life, it’s often the little things that count.
The front door opened by an observant food runner when he sees you approaching. A smiling hostess delivering your glass of wine from the bar to the table. A salad that’s expertly split three ways on a tableside cart by a white-jacketed server using one hand and two spoons. All of these things happened on my visits to Joe Fish, a new River North restaurant specializing in Italian-inspired seafood.
Not that any of this old-school service should come as a surprise. Joe Fish is part of Rosebud Restaurants, a group headed up by Chicago restaurateur Alex Dana, who opened his first Rosebud on Taylor Street in Little Italy back in 1975 and who has since grown the operation to 10 spots, including the bustling Carmine’s on Rush Street. Executive Corporate Chef Joe Farina, a longtime member of the Rosebud family, oversees the kitchen at Joe Fish—the restaurant’s name is a combination of his first name and a play on Go Fish—as well as the company’s other restaurants.
These are the kind of restaurants where mom and dad would feel right at home. Heck, even the grandparents would have a good time. Like at its older siblings, at Joe Fish you’ll find cushy chairs, easy-listening music at a conversation-friendly volume and plenty of regulars who often get a hearty handshake or hug from the managers. Trendy or cutting-edge it is not.
And it’s not just the service and ambience at Joe Fish that’s a throwback to a different era. There’s something to be said about food that doesn’t need a Food Lover’s Companion to understand it or a lecture from the server on the proper way to eat it. That is what is on offer here—and when the dishes are done right, that’s not a bad thing. The Twitterati may have other things to say about the approach, but folks are digging in, whether sitting in the main dining room, at the laid-back bar or at the 10-seat oyster bar.
Take, for instance, the crabcake appetizer (other menu sections include Salads, By the Sea, Beyond the Sea, Pasta and Risotto, and Sides). With a diameter somewhere between a hockey puck and a CD, the inch-and-a-half-thick disc is chock-full of sweet jumbo lump crab meat with next to no filler. Aioli is served on the side, but all the crabcake needs is a squeeze from the lemon half swaddled in yellow mesh fabric—no stray seeds here—to complete it. It’s old-school and spot on.
I like what Joe Fish does with octopus too. Here, lightly charred meaty chunks of the once exotic sea creature (now as ubiquitous as shrimp on menus around town) get tossed with toothsome gigante beans, bits of oven-dried tomato and thin slivers of crunchy celery. A zippy red wine vinaigrette brings it all together. Like pretty much all of the dishes at Joe Fish, it’s big and could easily do double-duty as an entree. If doggie bags aren’t your thing, consider yourself warned.
Speaking of shrimp, Joe’s appetizer is worth considering. Three extra-plump tail-on crustaceans share the plate with a mound of creamy polenta and a white wine pan sauce. The flavors are great, although on my visit the pancetta promised on the menu was pretty much nonexistent.
Less successful, though complete, was the sugar snap pea salad, which includes heirloom tomatoes, chunks of feta and a chiffonade of spearmint. Good on their own, sure, but the parts never seem to come together as a whole.
That wasn’t a problem with the special of spaghetti with littleneck clams and grilled peppers topped with garlicky breadcrumbs—each ingredient of the appetizer played a vital role in the dish’s success.
You know what else was a big hit at my table? The fact that our server—who gets extra points for his soothing Harry Belafonte-esque voice and quick answers to every question—never failed to make sure each dish was accompanied by serving spoons when he wasn’t doing the splitting himself. And how’s this for going the extra mile: When my tablemate was debating between two white wines, “Harry” brought a sample of each for him to try.
Of the dozen or so By the Sea entrees—when you’re at a restaurant with “fish” in its name, ordering meat seems silly in my book—the tender Chilean sea bass wrapped in crispy La Quercia prosciutto and accompanied by a light mascarpone and brown butter sauce and grilled figs is a standout.
Sides have a comfort-food feel, including roasted corn with edamame, and English peas with smoked bacon and basil butter, both served in Staub crocks. Those looking for even more of a down-home vibe can opt for fluffy biscuits from Logan Square’s Bang Bang Pie Shop, offered as an appetizer—there are also four types of bread (pumpernickel onion, whole wheat, olive oil ciabatta and sesame polenta) available gratis—or a slice of their terrific pecan pie or cheesecake. The most popular dessert here seems to be the freakishly large multilayered chocolate cake that never fails to get heads swiveling in the dining room (here’s one for you, Instagrammers!).
Like any new River North restaurant worth its ZIP code, Joe Fish offers a selection of classic cocktails and even housemade punches. But for me, all this old-school-ness is more conducive to wine—a Chateau de Sancerre 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps?—or a classic gin martini. Some things, it seems, never go out of style.
445 N. Dearborn St., 312.832.7700
Open for dinner nightly, brunch Sat.-Sun.
Firsts: $3-$21; entrees: $26-$62; sides: $7-$12; dessert: $8-$10