After the chocolate-filled excess of Valentine's Day and the boozy melee that is Mardi Gras, Lent is an apt time to clean things up (read: your diet). But rather than throw flavor and enjoyment out the window for a few weeks, turn your attention to fish and seafood. Fortunately, Chicago restaurants offer bounteous opportunities to feast on nautical delights that toe the perfect middle ground between healthful and flavorful.
New England Seafood Company (3341 N. Lincoln Ave., above)
Few regions do seafood like New Englanders. While we may not abut the Atlantic Ocean, we can at least get a sufficient taste of it via New England Seafood Company, a homey and casual eatery in Lakeview helmed by a couple New England expats. So you know your chowder and your clam rolls are in good hands. The space doubles as a fish market, so after you're done inhaling that oyster cracker-heaped bowl of chowder, you can pick up nautical provisions to cook later in the week... or later that day.
Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House (1024 N. Rush St.)
The name sounds like something out of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, but the premise is a lot less zany. Fine seafood and fish make landfall at this scenic Gold Coast standby, offering a sense of nostalgia and comfort with its antiquated motif and a sense of energy with its buzzing crowds and frenzied atmosphere. It sets an apropos pace for digging into coriander-seared tuna, spicy lobster cocktail, oysters Rockefeller, clam chowder, blackened salmon sandwich, lake perch and boatloads more. Ahoy!
Kinmont (419 W. Superior St.)
One of the freshest fish-focused spots to surface in Chicago is Kinmont, a restaurant that also happens to be the city's first entirely sustainably sourced seafood concept. Fish come from near (the Great Lakes) and far (not the Great Lakes) for dishes small and large. Start with some oysters before diving into marinated mussels, crab legs, and wild Gulf shrimp cocktail, followed by heftier portions of fish fries, Spanish mackerel, shellfish towers and the catch of the day.
GT Fish & Oyster (531 N. Wells St.)
Perhaps the chicest seafood spot in town is GT Fish & Oyster, a nautically themed eatery that looks like it could host a mermaid fashion show. The refined cuisine is courtesy of revered chef Giuseppe Tentori, who puts his own novel twist on everything from lobster rolls and crab cakes to oyster po' boy sliders and fish tacos. It's a fancied step up from the norm, but a welcome upgrade indeed.
Shaw's Crab House (21 E. Hubbard St.)
For a oceanic taste of Chicago history, Shaw's Crab House can't be beat. With a city location and a Schaumburg location, the River North Shaw's serves as a bastion of reliable, seafaring comfort in a sea of hot spots. There are two ways to approach Shaw's: veer left into the main dining room and find yourself immersed in a polished, vintage-y parlor reminiscent of a ballroom on the Titanic. The expansive menu ensures there is something for everyone, including the sushi-phile, the oyster-obsessed, the lobster bisque brigade, and of course, the crab-lovers. The other way to approach Shaw's is by dining and drinking in their low-key, boisterous oyster bar, where the atmosphere always feels like a down-home party, but with top-notch food.
Fish Bar (2956 N. Sheffield Ave.)
Fish Bar is the rare restaurant the toes the line between dive-y shanty and contemporary class-act. It nails the middle ground to a tee with its mix of casual, beachy decor that actually makes you feel like you're dining oceanside in San Diego, and its assembly of pristine seafood and fish, sourced fresh every day from the finest purveyors. So you can feast guilt-free on fish sliders, "crabby patties," lobster rolls, clam chowder, blue crab gumbo and blackened redfish.
Photos: New England Seafood Company, Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House, GT Fish & Oyster, Fish Bar