In what will surely be an affront to certain species of indiscriminate eaters, there is no dolphin, baby seal, or mermaid meat on the menu at Kinmont. For the rest of us it’s comforting to know that the Element Collective’s new fish house serves only sea creatures that aren’t (yet) about to go the way of the coelacanth. That the folks behind Old Town Social and Nellcote would choose this moment to open a seafood restaurant is no surprise. This year’s fish houses are like last year’s fried chicken shacks (and in that regard the group is well behind the curve, opening its sustainable-chicken sandwich shop Leghorn just last week.) Right now you can’t bottom trawl the near north side without dragging up a new oyster bar.
But Kinmont’s focus on “rough,” or less commonly eaten, environmentally secure fish sets it apart, as does the midwestern supper club vibe, walls bedecked with lanterns and papered with old articles from Field & Stream, taking a bit of shtick from the Lettuce Entertain You school of restaurant design.
And though chef Duncan Biddulph’s (Rootstock, Lula) menu eschews the by-now-standard shareable-small-plates scheme for a more traditional appetizer/entree format, there are plenty of communal-style feasting options to foster a chummy spirit: giant crocks of fisherman’s stew, whole fish for the table, shellfish boils, and towering platters of iced raw shellfish. One of the latter monuments seemed like a nice way to clue in on whether the restaurant’s sustainable-sourcing efforts offer as much quality as they do conscience clearing. The oysters I tried, from both coasts, were fresh and cleanly enough shucked (well, a bit of shrapnel here and there is forgivable on a busy night). Mussels seasoned with celery, shallots, and raisiny Aleppo chile powder make a nice bite, as do briny-sweet splits of Alaskan king crab leg and one of the more unusual and delicious dishes on the menu, a salmon tartare seasoned with mustard and mixed with minced eggs, cornichons, and shallots, served with a pretty, translucent, and crisp flatbread flecked with whole herbs. It’s one of a handful of strikingly creative, if at times problematic, preparations on Biddulph’s menu.
Another of these is a dish of eggs scrambled with smoked whitefish and garnished with bursting salmon roe. This is one of many items that approach an Au Cheval-like level of rich, fatty abandon, yet the frothy, foamy texture of the eggs is too delicate for the aggressively salty smoked fish.
Dairy dances with seafood in quite a few of these dishes, to differing effect. The smoked fish seems lost in a creamy dip, while sweet king-crab meat is prominent in a gooey cheddar-laden gratin. You can almost stand your spoon up in a thick whitefish chowder approaching the viscosity of mashed potatoes.
I was perversely compelled to order the smoked-trout Reuben, built on house-made rye. In execution it’s a surprisingly well-constructed sandwich, the bread buttery and perfectly toasted, the kraut and Thousand Island dressing mingling with the fish (though the fries on the side were well browned yet unaccountably soft). But a few bites in, a powerfully acrid flavor became evident in the fish, something we guessed was due to creosote, which accretes in the presence of too much smoke. It was a problem I didn’t detect in a side of sweet smoked baby carrots.
For now at least, executional flaws like that are far too common in this busy spot. A dish of squid ink spaghetti with shrimp arrived undercooked to the point of doughiness. Two fish entrees—a grilled sturgeon with some delicious sweet-and-sour cauliflower and radicchio, and a piece of cobia that arrived on what we were warned was “the world’s hottest plate”—were unforgivably dry and overcooked.
The latter entree was one of Kinmont’s “catch of the day” selections, a rotating roster of fish simply broiled in brown butter or olive oil and served with a bright lemon-parsley sauce. The trout I ate in this preparation was perfectly cooked and one of the most memorably tasty things I encountered at Kinmont. The same was true with an interesting plate of roasted sardines with black garlic and ribbons of pickled butternut squash that had an unusual though not unpleasant astringency.
Kinmont offers a roundup of classic cocktails—like a watery, weak Tom Collins—and a few originals like the Fernet-spiked, manhattanesque Bridgetown Milano, plus modest craft beer and wine lists. It’s also serving one of the most appealing desserts in the city right now. Take a pass on the cold chocolate chip cookies with Ovaltine-flavored buttermilk and order the apple pie, a small self-contained discus with a blowhole in the top, into which a remarkable hot cheddar-caramel sauce is poured. I’d be satisfied just throwing back a shot of that and calling it a night.
Dishes like the trout give me confidence that this kitchen isn’t incapable of doing great things with these humble fish. But right now it isn’t doing many of them any favors.