15 Whole Fish Dishes We Love in Chicago

By Sarah Freeman  |  May 14, 2014

There are few things more awe-inspiring and envy-inducing than a whole-cooked fish being carted through a dining room. The popular presentation not only looks more than good enough to eat, but is renowned for its flavor (a product of cooking delicate meat on the bones).

With more and more chefs offering whole fish on their menus, and Chicago's obvious lack of proximity to prime seafood, competition for the best fish in the city is tough. It has even sparked a friendly rivalry between chefs Cosmo Goss at The Publican and Erling Wu-Bower at Nico. "Erling is like my older brother, and we compete like brothers,” Goss said. “I always try to out do him, but as is the case with most older brothers, he tends to win most of the time.” The two talk on the phone about twice a week, the conversation usually revolving around what fish is coming into the restaurants and the planned preparation for them.

Goss changes his fish preparation daily, but usually serves it pan-roasted or deep-fried, while Wu-Bower encases his fish in salt before roasting it in the crust. These are just two of over a dozen whole fish preparations appearing at restaurants around Chicago; check out some of our other favorites below. 

  • Arami

    Aji sounds a lot more appetizing than the common name of this fish: horse mackerel. It's sourced from Korea and is prepared two ways: one side is sliced sashimi style and the other nigiri style. The body of the fish is fried and served with a house dressing. Due to the limited availability of the fish, chef Fred Despres recommends calling ahead to reserve one.

    1829 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-1535

  • Avec

    Multiple purveyors and flexibility is the key to chef Perry Hendrix whole fish. Whether that fish comes from the Mediterranean or the East Coast, he roasts it whole with olives, fennel, arugula, charred orange and lavender vinaigrette. This rustic preparation fits in perfectly with the Mediterranean restaurant's down-to-earth vibe.

    615 W. Randolph St.; 312-377-2002

  • Bow & Stern

    Red and yellowtail snapper from off the Eastern coast of Florida is the whole fish of choice at this seafood restaurant. It's deboned with the head and tail left, then served crispy on a bed of mixed vegetables. The kicker is the romesco sauce that is made with a base of a fish stock that renders flavor from the fish bones.

    1371 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-988-0644

  • County

    This new BBQ restaurant is lightening things up for summer with its version of a whole fish. Mediterranean sea bass from Greece is pan-fried with shaved fennel and fingerling potato salad, dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and red chili flakes. The fish is only available in a limited quantity on the weekends.

    1352 W. Taylor St.; 312-929-2528

  • Embeya

    Whole sole are cleaned and scored on both sides. The fish is dipped in a dredge made of rice flour, cornstarch, salt and pepper and then fried. It is seasoned and served with a classic dipping Vietnamese sauce call "nouc mam gung," made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, chili, vinegar, palm sugar and ginger.

    564 W. Randolph St.; 312-612-5640

  • The Florentine

    Executive chef Chris Macchia relies on dorade sourced from Greece for his whole fish preparation. The fish are cleaned before they are roasted whole and served with simple sides, including roasted cauliflower, Calabrian chili and lemon-oregano jam.

    151 W. Adams St.; 312-660-8866

  • Fulton Market Kitchen

    The “Goldfish for Two” is not quite your childhood goldfish, sourced fresh from your neighborhood fish tank. Instead, it’s a red snapper tempura battered and fried whole. It is dusted with gold flakes before being served in coconut beurre blanc sauce with tempura-fried peppers.

    311 N. Sangamon St.; 312-733-6900

  • Japonais by Morimoto

    The recipe for this fish is derived from the Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking cookbook. The fish is served crispy with spicy tofu sauce and papaya salad.

    600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-822-9600

  • Kinmont

    Look to the chalkboard for the evening's whole fish preparation; often it is branzino. The fish is sourced from Canada and is rated as a best choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. Chef Duncan Biddulph stuffs it with lemons and roasts it over thyme.

    419 W. Superior St.; 312-915-0011

  • Mott St

    Whole fish head feast is the name of the game at Mott St (if you give the restaurant advance notice). Grouper heads, which range in weight from eight to 10 pounds, are rubbed with fermented black bean sauce and house chili oil, sprinkled with shredded scallions and slowly roasted for two to three hours.

    1401 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-687-9977

  • Nico

    The salt-crusted branzino is sourced from the North Sea. Chef Erling Wu-Bower butterflies the fish, stuffs the bones back into the fish and then roasts it in a salt crust. It is topped with brown butter and white alban clamshell mushrooms.

    1015 N. Rush St.; 312-994-7100

  • Paris Club Bistro & Bar

    This recently renovated French bistro has an equally fresh approach to serving dover sole. The whole fish are delivered from Holland and serve two people. Each fish is roasted in butter - it’s very French - fileted and finished with sauce grenobloise alongside Yukon gold potatoes.

    59 W. Hubbard St.; 312-595-0800

  • The Publican

    As mentioned, the whole fish preparation changes daily according to availability. Lately, chef Cosmo Goss has been serving dover sole, sculpin or black bass. The whole fish is either pan-roasted or deep-fried.

    837 W. Fulton Market; 312-733-9555

  • Tanta

    Stripped bass is the fish of choice for the pescado frito, or whole market fish. The fish is fileted and fried in pieces, and the head, tail and spine are also fried and added to the plate for a striking presentation. It's served with baby bok choy, chaufa rice and sweet and spicy nikkei sauce.

    118 W. Grand Ave.; 312-222-9700

  • Sunda

    Florida red snapper gets the whole fish treatment from chef Jess Deguzman, who first filets the fish, keeping the head and bones intact. The filets are cut into bite-sized pieces, dredged in seasoned flour and flash fried. The cooked pieces are then served with the fried head and body with bok choy, carrots, lotus root and onions with a shaoxing rice wine sauce.

    110 W. Illinois St.; 312-644-0500