By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
When I was a baby lawyer, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, if you needed money you needed to go to a bank, rebooting meant putting your shoes back on and there was a great Italian steak house on the corner of Grand Avenue and Wells Street, cleverly named the Grand and Wells Tap. Long gone now.
Times have changed, no one under 30 has probably ever been to a bank and one of my great joys is bringing first-year associates over to the Daley Center to watch them fumble around with the plucky carbon paper that thumbs its nose at Pacer and other great "efficiency improvements." But Grand and Wells is still a great food corner because in this same space lives GT Fish & Oyster — which is a fine addition to Chicago's seafood offerings.
GT Fish & Oyster
Photo by Adam Music.
When this place first opened, it got more press then Oprah used to, at least as much as the Girl and the Goat, so naturally I avoided both of them. I am here to tell you now that neither are flashes in the pan and hopefully each will be around for a long time. This column isn't about Girl and the Goat, but for those of you who haven't been there because you heard the reservation wait is ridiculous, stop it. Go there early, sit at the bar. The place is laid back and easy to like. Sure, it's a little foodie, but not in a bad way. Stephanie Izard does things with stuff like Brussels sprouts that other chefs just don't do.
This column is about GT Fish & Oyster, which is also a great place. Just on the outskirts of downtown, it opens to a big, clean bar area with a huge communal table and walls carrying a nautical theme (little fishing weights hold down the napkins), but in a casual, classy black-sheet rock and natural-wood surround sort of way. The dining room is small and a little noisy, but not so much that you can't talk. There is a small, outdoor seating area on the Grand Avenue side that is accessed by a floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass door that was so clean that the way-too-old-for-the-fedora-he-was wearing, hipster dude walked flat into it in his rush to meet the way-too-young woman who must have been his daughter (ya think?) waiting for him outside. Impressive. Even if the food was lousy, that scene was worth the price of admission.
But the food isn't lousy. It's pretty good, bordering on really good. Oysters are a little pricey at $3 each, but they were icy, briny, cold and the server actually knew one kind from the other and described them perfectly. After 10 p.m., they are half-price.
The dining room also has two big, oval home-style dining room tables that look like a lot of fun to sit at with a big group. When you are sitting there, be sure to try the Tuna Poke, a beautifully presented cylinder of fresh ahi with mango, cucumber and dotted with smoky, black sesame seeds. Next try the Baja Shrimp Bruschetta — again a little pricey at $8 for two shrimps on coarse toast points, but quality over quantity is the theme here and these were perfectly grilled and balanced against grapefruit, avocado and toasted pistachios.
The sandwich selection included a tuna BLT, which I am happily seeing more and more, happily because the tuna tricks you into thinking that something as delicious as bacon is good for you. GT Fish & Oyster does it right with thick, peppered and crisp bacon and, honestly, too, because it comes with deep-fried dill pickle chips. Even I can't convince myself that deep-fried anything is a health food, even if it sidles up to rare, lean tuna.
For the safety-eater, there is traditional fish and chips, which actually is better than most — four, Sissy Hankshaw-sized hunks of lightly battered cod along with a few crispy steak fries that went down nicely with malt vinegar. Crab cake was served in a rectangle, not rounds as they usually are, chock full of sweet king crab over a tangy, orange bell pepper sauce with tiny, pickled cauliflower florets. Skip the flat, boring GT mac and cheese in favor of desserts, but don't miss the best in show: steamed Alaskan halibut — a crisp, pan-seared, hand-sized (OK, small hands) filet served over a bed of black, squid-ink couscous and green basil/sweet pea broth. The roasted fennel (underused, great flavor) rounds off the flavors with all of them adding to each other, nothing overpowering anything else.
At lunch they only have three desserts. Get them all. Sticky Toffee Cake with pecans and crème fraiche is never a bad choice and certainly not this moist offering with a little caramelly, chewy on the outsides — vanilla ice cream would have put it over the top. Salted Caramel Tart with sliced bananas and cream drizzled with chocolate needs to come with an insulin pen. It's very sweet but with enough salt to make it manageable, especially if you share. There's nothing drizzled about the chocolate in the chocolate mousse, which really isn't mousse at all, but a half-dozen chunks of crazy, rich, deep chocolate surrounded with giant blackberries. Much better choice than the lobster mac.
GT Fish & Oyster
531 N. Wells St., Chicago