“Fishing season” opens this month, and not a minute too soon. Our winter-weary palates are desperate for a change. The carnivorous extravaganzas of the holidays are a distant memory and we crave lighter, livelier food as we ease out of the depths of winter. Fish is the perfect thing: nutritious, delicious and fresh. We are blessed with many fine fish dishes to choose from around here, and if the fish came from of one of our bountiful lakes, so much the better. Here are a few of our freshest favorites.
Cedar Planked Salmon
Bonfire is all about, you got it, fire. Hickory smoke permeates the joint; salivation is immediate. Fish can be tricky in high heat; the daintier ones can’t handle it. Salmon is hearty and oily enough to brave the flames and benefit from the smoky infusion without losing its character. Cedar-planked is a popular preparation; the salmon takes on a pleasant whiff of the wood’s aroma. Once roasted, the fish is finished with more notes of smoke in a red onion and jalapeno glaze; a sprinkle of fresh chopped cilantro adds a welcome herbaceous pop. $22.95. 1424 Weir Drive; 651.735.0085.
Parmesan Crusted Walleye
If you like your walleye gussied up, try the Parmesan crusted version at Lakes Tavern and Grill, our go-to eatery for classic dishes with a tasty twist. The filet is dusted in a flavorful cornmeal and Romano cheese breading and quickly pan-fried for an elegant exterior crunch and a sweetly moist interior. It comes with whatever vegetable is fresh at the moment and the tavern’s marvelous emerald-green cilantro rice. Lakes’ addictive tartar sauce, sort of a mayonnaise with benefits, is made in-house. $19. 9240 Hudson Road; 651.287.2000.
Local fishing is rife with fun fish names like crappie and pumpkin seed. Another type of “pan fish”—because it’s best to pan-fry these babies—is the sunfish, or sunny for short. They’re little guys, so you’d best eat a few. Like many of our lake fish, the meat is tender, slightly sweet, and evocative of clean, cold lake waters. Get your sunnies at Lake Elmo Inn, where the potato-crusted filets get a quick fry-up and are served with a sprightly champagne lemon vinaigrette. $26.95 for dinner; $16.95 for lunch. 3442 Lake Elmo Ave. N., Lake Elmo; 651.777.8495.
Our homegrown mini-chain, Keys Café and Bakery, is as Minnesota as can be; naturally it serves a classic Minnesota lake fish, the walleye pike. Tender, flaky and clean-tasting, the walleye was designated as our state fish in 1965. They are indeed walleyed, producing an “eye shine” that makes them easier to catch. We contend that the litmus test of a good local restaurant is how they treat their walleye, and Keys does a respectable job. Order it grilled in white wine butter or battered and fried. The latter preparation is ideal in its simplicity and Minnesotan humbleness: a crunchy, golden exterior and mild, flaky interior, adorned with nothing more than a lemon wedge and a side of chunky, sweet tartar sauce. $14.25 1750 Weir Drive; 651.731.5397.
Smoked Fish Plate
David’s is known for its variety throughout the menu, and that includes tantilizing appetizers that please. Our pick is the smoked fish plate. Smoked lake trout is the star of this appetizer, a luscious array of treats, including smoked salmon, whitefish, oysters and flying fish caviar. Trout is both delicate in texture and full of healthy omega-3 oils; the flavor is slightly sweet, melding well with the smoke. Some olives come along for the ride; lemon offers a brightening squirt of acidity and good focaccia makes the perfect delivery vehicle. $16. 9555 Wedgewood Drive; 651.294.3160.
Spicy Tuna Handroll
Akita Sushi and Hibachi
Let us not forget sushi. When you want it, you need it, and Akita is ready to oblige. The key is high quality, and Akita’s fresh tuna is just that. Chopped and mixed with a mouth-watering, delicious spicy mayo, this handroll is a winner. The glistening fish snuggles with sticky rice, and the resulting handroll is served with ginger and wasabi. A handroll is the way to go; the nifty cone of nori (seaweed) that holds generous chunks of the good stuff. $3.99 each. 779 Bielenberg Drive; 651.578.7888.
Tilapia is a utilitarian fish, easy to raise, amenable to many recipes and agreeable to most palates. Chipotle sauce is smoky and spicy; the fish is liberally doused with it and all but disappears; it’s served with rice, lettuce, sour cream and pico de gallo. Make your own little fish burrito with the accompanying flour tortillas. $11.99. 10150 Hudson Road; 651.340.3524.
Osaka Sushi and Hibachi
Step into Osaka and you’re magically transported to a festive and exotic setting bedecked with red lanterns swaying overhead; the warm red wooden bar feels like you’re sitting in a ceremonial tearoom. Grab a spot at the hibachi grill and watch the nimble chefs in action. Shrimp is often the choice for hibachi, but take the leap and try Osaka’s succulent swordfish. Swordfish is sturdy enough to handle the rigorous treatment; the high temperature and quick cooking time ensures a moist steak. $20.95. 9000 Hudson Road; 651.731.3333.
Head to this local Italian gem at Valley Creek Mall, and ask for barramundi oscar. The name sounds Italian, but it comes from aboriginal Australian, meaning “large-scaled river fish.” At Sole Mio Ristorante, under the watchful eye of chef Angelo Montes (who is passionate about everything he serves), the fish adopt a traditional filet mignon treatment: “Oscar” style, meaning topped with luxurious lobster claw meat and cloaked in tarragon-inflected, egg yolk-rich bérnaise sauce. A simple bed of grilled asparagus completes the ensemble. $28.99. 1750 Weir Drive; 651.789.3220.