By Emily Paster
A restaurant with the words "fish" and "oyster" in its name is not the kind of place that I would normally drag my non-seafood-eating husband. But when I am not the one choosing the restaurant, anything can happen.
Last week, various members of my extended family came to Chicago to celebrate my first-cousin-once-removed graduation from Northwestern. The group included my aunt and uncle, my cousin and her husband — the graduate's proud parents — and more. My aunt, who knows how to pick a restaurant, invited us to join them for dinner. She had already selected GT Fish and Oyster in River North for the party and kindly pointed out that there was a steak on the menu so that my husband would have something to eat. My husband would never let his picky eating habits stand in the way of celebrating such a happy occasion, so naturally we accepted. From my point of view, it was win-win: I got to try a restaurant that I had heard great things about without feeling guilty for dragging my husband to a place where he had so few menu options.
GT Fish and Oyster is an updated version of a classic seafood restaurant. It has received high marks from all the local papers and recognition from national publications such as Food & Wine and the Michelin Guide. It is part of the Boka Restaurant Group, which includes many of the hottest restaurants in town, from Girl & the Goat to Balena. One thing that distinguishes all of the restaurants in this group, in my opinion, is their level of customer service. The service at GT Fish and Oyster was exceptionally friendly and welcoming. We had an adorable waitress — an aspiring actor like our graduate — who chatted convivially with our group and picked up on the fact that we were celebrating a graduation. She even ensured that one of our desserts came out with a congratulatory message. When my cousin's husband and I were loitering near the bar watching the action in the open kitchen, one of the bartenders came out to make sure that we were being taken care of. Service like that makes an impression.
But of course, the real draw at GT Fish and Oyster is the food. The menu is divided between classic seafood dishes, like crab cakes, clam chowder and lobster rolls, and modern, Asian and Latin-influenced dishes like Cold Green Tea Soba Noodles with shrimp and Sunfish Ceviche with chimichurri. The small plates menu is designed for sharing but between my allergy to shellfish and my husband's total aversion to anything that comes from the sea, we were not good candidates for family-style dining. Our table opted to order a few starters to share, like oysters and the Baja Shrimp Bruschetta — two without shrimp, please — and then let people order for themselves. How I wish I could have tried the lobster roll that our graduate had or the lobster dumplings with mustard wasabi aioli that my uncle ordered! But alas, I had to chose my meal carefully to avoid all the lovely shrimp, crab and lobster that make me sick, sick, sick.
After sampling some East Coast oysters that were as plump and briny as one could want, I had the grilled artichokes with yogurt, trout roe, black garlic and basil as my starter. What an inventive combination of ingredients! I'm a big artichoke fan so this dish was perfect for me. It felt very seasonal and the nuttiness of the artichoke heart paired well with the briny pop of the trout roe and the creamy yogurt. For my main dish, I ordered Alaskan halibut with asparagus, smoked almonds, yellow grape tomatoes and a citrus vinaigrette. I was worried that halibut was a boring choice, but this dish was an unqualified success. First, the presentation was stunning with the combination of purple edible flowers, green asparagus and yellow tomatoes. The asparagus were shaved into thin strips which totally changed how I experienced this very familiar vegetable. The fish was cooked to perfection; the grilled yellow tomatoes provided little bursts of sweetness; and the almond puree added a note of smokiness. I was a very happy camper despite not being able to eat all the sexy lobster dishes.
I think my husband did okay with his steak. To be honest, I wasn't paying much attention. I was too busy enjoying my own food and casting furtive glances at the forbidden lobster. One other dish that I noticed in particular was the clam chowder, which came in the cutest swing-top jar. GT Fish and Oyster is very strong on the presentation of their dishes, the significance of which should not be underestimated. The first thing you notice when a dish comes to the table is how it looks.
I will probably never get to go back to GT Fish and Oyster, at least not with my husband. But I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who loves seafood. It is also a terrific restaurant for a group or for a celebration.