Twenty-three years ago the late Reader staff writer Grant Pick profiled Alex Dana, the schmoozy yet cantankerous owner of what were then two of the most happening restaurants in town: Rosebud, on Taylor Street, and Centro Ristorante, in River North. Dana’s restaurants boasted the toughest tables in town, abetted in part by Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, who never heard a celebrity sighting she didn’t publish.
In subsequent years, Dana grew an empire. Rosebuds spread across the city and suburbs, and so did Italian steak houses, in Streeterville (Rosebud Steakhouse), the Loop (Rosebud Prime), and the Viagra Triangle (Carmine’s). These places, though now a bit out of stream with prevailing winds, have persisted for good reason: they’re big on portion size and a certain kind of formal but chummy service that makes the diner feel at home. And they cater to a clientele that persists too: older diners eating outside the orbit of the me-firsters that trip over themselves to get into every new River North opening. Centro, which closed long ago, was rebooted last year with a relative lack of fanfare that must have been disappointing to Dana and company, its light dimmed by the constellation of flashy new openings in the neighborhood. So too, few people seemed to have mourned the passing of Rosebud Trattoria right around the block. Maybe the space was still haunted by the guests of Jenny Jones past, but the forces at Rosebud Restaurants have installed something a bit more current in that spot.
You aren’t allowed to open a restaurant in Chicago anymore unless it’s Italian or seafood focused. Why not put them together? That’d turn the kids’ heads, right? Oh, right. But apart from their similarly lofty prices, Nico Osteria exists in a different time and place from the average Rosebud restaurant.
Joe Fish is a throwback.
The first thing you’ll notice from outside the tall glass windows is a buzzing army of white-jacketed servers, the majority of them in their 30s or above—lifers who know how to make diners feel in control, yet turn the tables at a profitable rate. It almost seems overstaffed, but the seats get filled at Joe Fish—a play on Go Fish and the given name of corporate chef Joe Farina, who’s presented a formidable menu of classic seafood dishes presented in formidable steak-house style.
Nearly everything that arrives at the table at Joe Fish is intended to elicit awe, whether by virtue of daunting portion size or dramatic presentation (there’s a gueridon at the waiters’ station stocked with all the appropriate flammables for bananas Foster on the weekends). Naturally there’s a raw bar featuring some ten different east- and west-coast oysters, plus clams, shrimp cocktail, and lobster priced according to size.
Appetizers and salads could easily stand in for entrees for diners of normal appetite. Briny Island Creek bivalves set the foundation for oysters Rockefeller loaded with creamy spinach, thick chunks of bacon, and a browned Parmesan crust surrounded by a mountain of lemon-dressed arugula. A softball-size lump crab cake containing relatively little filler, just sweet, finely shredded flesh, is bedded beside a treacly sweet slaw. Dishes such as these are big but not brutish. The attention to detail is such that they’re served with lemon halves shrouded in a fine mesh that allows the juice to express itself while keeping the seeds in.
Some dishes are so primordial you wonder if there’s anyone alive left to remember them. You have to marvel over what sort of culinary archaeological dig uncovered a salad of poached lobster chunks smothered in Russian dressing. I had to be talked into that one, and I’m glad I was; the pleasurably chewy lobster stands up to the dressing’s richness and acidity as well as to the fattiness of a half avocado.
There are a number of entrees made from terrestrial animals for those that don’t have their sea legs, and the folks behind this steak-house dynasty certainly know their way with rib eyes and racks of lamb, chicken breasts and cheeseburgers. But it’d be a shame to come here and miss out on some of the arresting seafood presentations, such as a pearly, phone-book-thick sea bass fillet wrapped in glistening blood-red La Quercia prosciutto, or a whole roasted branzino dissected tableside by a server who could do it in his sleep. Also deboned at the table: a panfried Dover sole, its exterior a bit floury but no match for delicate, sweet white flesh bathed in rich almondine sauce, served with a dish of buttery wild rice.
You can get a pair of jumbo soft-shell crabs prepared differently daily, or a pound of king crab legs, but if you really want to measure the kitchen’s facility with sea creatures, check out the bouillabaisse, which while a bit too salty featured an aquarium’s worth of squid, mussels, clams, lobster, shrimp, and sea bass, all cooked to the perfect temperature and texture, a feat I’m not sure I’ve ever been witness to in a restaurant.
This being a Rosebud spot, there are copiously sized pasta dishes and rice, like a simple but abundant linguine alle vongole, the pasta hidden by smiling clams, or a dairyless, appropriately soupy risotto, the grains perfectly distinct, sweetened with sun-dried tomatoes, crowned by fat grilled shrimp, and laced with Michigan ramps.
That last bit of local seasonality is at odds with the number of times fresh tomatoes appear on the menu. But putting aside the watery, anemic cocktails, the biggest thing that seems out of place at Joe Fish is the big, fluffy Bang Bang Pie Shop biscuits available as an appetizer with butter and jam, an option that would make more sense for dessert.
Speaking of Bang Bang and desserts, the Logan Square pie shop furnishes a few of those too—cheesecake and pecan pie—but if you’re feeling burdened by the heavy plates you’ve just consumed, there’s a lightly sweet dish of whipped ricotta with honey, marcona almonds, and blackberries that won’t drag you down. On the other hand, dessert is much like everything else at Joe Fish: for showing as much as eating. As at other Rosebud restaurants, there are a few off-menu desserts that servers like to drop into their pitch just to make their guests feel special. But once someone orders the towering five-layer chocolate cake, the secret is out, all eyes follow it across the dining room, and it makes more and more frequent appearances. Nobody eats this cake in one sitting. This cake is a symbol of something else. It’s Alex Dana’s way of saying you’re a baller. It’s your way of saying the same thing to your fellow diners, which is precisely what Joe Fish is all about.