With the donut showdown barely over the first proper meal on my Chicago agenda was at GT Fish & Oyster, a restaurant that had gotten rave reviews since the day it opened and given the diverse seafood-centric menu focused on ‘small plates/big taste’ it seemed a great choice after all the sugar and starch at breakfast, and all the more so in the setting of uncharacteristically beautiful weather. Admittedly having never visited any of the other BOKA restaurant group locations, an added bonus of the 1:00pm reservation was the chance to see what Giuseppe Tentori’s cuisine was all about.
Located on North Wells and often full throughout lunch according to my friend, particularly on a Friday, I arrived to GTF&O minutes prior to my confirmed reservation and with both the patio and the dining room busy but not jammed packed I was greeted by the hostess and quickly led to a table on the cusp on the patio but out of the sun – a prime spot save for the fact that waiters seemed incapable of avoiding my chair as they carried plates in and out the door and after sitting for a few moments one of these servers approached – a man named Kevin who quite liked the phrases ‘my friend’ and ‘bro’ when addressing both my table and the one next to me. With the menu already present on the table before Kevin arrived he asked if I would like a cocktail and on declining he persisted in suggesting I take a look at the list to see if anything changed my mind…which it did not.
Left to my decisions for the better part of fifteen minutes despite knowing what I wanted within a couple I spent some time perusing the scene – a vivacious bar crowd even at lunch indulging in a large platter of iced oysters, dark wood floors, ivory wood walls plus obvious nautical influences largely dominating my view then and later replaced by a large party of eight at the banquet next to me. A pleasant space overall and bathed in natural light I have to admit I was surprised that the restaurant was rather quiet, but seeing it at only half-capacity I imagine the nighttime scene is quite different.
When Kevin finally returned I inquired about a couple of items failing to list the specific fish utilized and with the explanation that this changes depending on what is fresh I made my choices – 3 savories and a sweet – while sticking with water as my beverage of choice, and with no bread service it would be perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes before the Clam Chowder with Neuske’s Bacon and House Made Oyster Crackers arrived in a flip-top jar. Certainly not GT’s most adventurous option but amongst the most celebrated I quickly took a bite and despite it being a bit too hot I was impressed, the creamy potage wowing with a smooth and buttery body, tender clams balanced by ample potatoes, and a smoky note that perfumed the palate. Generally not one to use crackers in soup but intrigued by the “house made” connotation I’ll additionally note that while I’d have simply preferred some table bread to go with the soup the rosemary tinged brioche nuggets were quite good, though really unnecessary as the soup was quite textural even without.
At this point with an empty water glass as back-waiters seemed clueless and Kevin had disappeared my empty bowl was collected after perhaps ten minutes and with my water then refilled I would wait…and wait…and wait for nearly thirty minutes before I flagged down a young lady and asked what was going on – an answer I never received, but to my best guess was either a computer or service glitch that led to my subsequent dishes never being prepared; a situation that was rectified with only a “sorry about that” after a nearly forty-five minute gap between appetizer and my 2-dish main course that the kitchen felt compelled to serve simultaneously despite both dishes being warm.
Beginning first with the Rock Fish Tacos with Garlic Marinade, Chipotle Aioli, and Chicharron I was served two of Tentori’s house made hot sauces – smolder and (wait for it…) burn – which Kevin suggested I add a ‘dash’ of if the tacos weren’t spicy enough. Generally not a fan of too much heat and wanting to taste the tacos at face value first I picked up one of the doubled soft corn tortillas and, well, generally not being a fan of bland-but-briny I ended up with more than a dash of sauce on each subsequent bite which helped to smooth out the salinity of the chicharron but did little to help the under-portioned dry fish.
Faring better than the tacos, another dish that has become sort of a GTF&O signature was the “GT Lobster Mac and Cheese with English Peas,” a shallow but indulgent bowl of tender orechiette loaded with buttery nuggets of lobster and a twist of lime bathed in breadcrumbs and a blend of well balanced cheeses. An excellent dish already I’m rather uncertain as to what inspired Tentori and team to add the tender early season peas to the dish, but adding a splash of color and a touch of sweet it was a lovely choice.
At this point quite full and a tad miffed at the lackluster service but committed to trying dessert as the menu contained one of my very favorite options I was offered coffee, which I declined, and nearly 115 minutes after walking through the doors the “Date Cake with Rum Toffee Sauce, Pecans, and Crème Fraiche” arrived to slightly mixed feelings. Beginning first with the good – if you like sticky toffee pudding or sweet desserts in general there is no denying that this steamed round was exemplary; a lovely sponge rife with fibrous dates and saturated with boozy toffee sauce as the crunchy pecans served as both a textural foil and a slightly bitter balance. Moving on to the not so good – just look at the quenelle of Crème Fraiche…far too sour, far too dense, and far too much even in the setting of such a sweet dessert.
With the bar area slowing down but the tables now mostly occupied it would not be long before Kevin would return, while I was till eating my dessert, and drop of the check with a “whenever you’re ready” and modeling his substandard approach to service I paid the tab with a substandard tip before standing up and making my way outside nearly $60 lighter in my wallet for food that ranged from decent to very good and service that was far less so. Call me a dissenter but I guess I just don’t get the hype, not in a city with so many other similar restaurants serving equal or better food with much better service. Having always wanted to check out Tentori’s cuisine at Boka I must say that my experience at GT Fish & Oyster did not exactly move it up on my list, though I anticipate service gaffs would be attenuated in a finer dining establishment.