Local chefs angle for walleye
Walleye is a freshwater fish once commonly found in the U.S. and Canada. It has a clean, relatively light taste and is highly sought after for its thick white fillets.
Walleye takes its name from its unusual marble-like eye, which appears transparent in certain light.
Many people think of freshwater fish as something to simply batter or bread then deep-fry and serve as a shore lunch. However, it can be prepared in many ways, requiring minimal cooking to create a delectable dish.
Chef Pat Reding, at Saints on Second, creatively incorporates Midwest flavors to make walleye cakes. Here, both flaked and chunked pieces of walleye are mixed with cooked wild rice, red pepper, green onion, a garlic aioli, fresh lemon juice and a splash of white wine. The packed patties are coated with seasoned breadcrumbs then fried and served with in-house prepared remoulade sauce. The result is a hearty appetizer. For those desiring an entree, the fish can be ordered either garlic broiled or fried in their in-house beer batter.
Dinner guests will delight in the walleye a la Milanese offered at Pescara. In this dish, the fillets are coated in a Parmesan-parsley-panko mixture. Chef Zach Ohly notes the aim is to simply seal in the natural flavors of the fresh fish. It is served with a lemon beurre blanc sauce.
Ohly notes that though walleye isn’t the highest quality fish, he believes the Midwest Friday Fish Fry, often based around walleye and cod, really helped popularize the fish. He adds, "It’s that comfort thing and still carries that nostalgia." Though he finds the supply channel for purchasing walleye is tightening, he believes guest satisfaction will drive Pescara to continue offering it.
For a midday sandwich, both Saints and Pescara offer a hearty pan-fried walleye sandwich served on a fresh bun.
At Five West, one finds a unique pumpkin seed crusted walleye. Chef Nick Bongle was inspired to create this dish having never forgotten reading about trout coated in a similar manner, while he was in culinary school.
The dish consists of an in-house prepared creamy polenta, which is finished with white cheddar cheese and butter then fried to give the polenta a crispy finished edge. Fresh spinach is sauteed in oil and white wine. The fish fillets are flour coated and dipped in an egg wash that allows the semolina (or corn flour) panko-ground pumpkin seed mixture to adhere to the fish before it is fried.
Plating consists of layering first the polenta square, the spinach and then the fish fillet. This is topped with Five West’s fresh chutney, consisting of cranberries, peppers, onion, red wine vinegar and diced apples. A final drizzle of lemon aioli adds contrasting color, flavor and texture.
The dish has been on the menu since Five West opened. "I’d have a riot on my hands if I ever tried to remove it," Bongle said. For now, his supplier is meeting their demand. That said, it does not always come in to the specifications requested. Recently, the fish have been smaller. Bongle finds that these often have a slightly sweeter taste, fortunately fitting in well with the other flavors in this dish.
Owner/chef Jim Nicholas at Wildwood Bar and Grill is himself an outdoorsman, driven to hunting and fishing. The menu here has featured the Red Lake reuben since opening in 2011. The idea for this sandwich spawned in the years he was executive chef at Teresa’s in the Ramada. In this sandwich, crumb-battered walleye is served on toasted marble rye along with melted Swiss and fresh coleslaw. Red Lake is the name of the Indian reservation where the fish has been obtained.
However, the time has come once again for change. No, Nicholas isn’t leaving, but the walleye is! Due to a "shortage and quality issue," Nicholas now will incorporate mahi mahi and Louisiana farm-raised catfish in his various walleye items.
"I am taking the high road on the conservation side," he said. "Fisheries are simply over-tasked. Supply is not meeting demand." Nicholas hopes over time, the walleye population can rebound as this fish are left in their natural habitat and allowed to spawn.