The sun melts into a pink-streaked sky as waves lap gently against the shore. A gull cries out over the sounds of laughter and glasses clinking from a dozen or so tables across the grassy lawn. Under a tent, a feast of peel-and-eat shrimp, red potatoes, sweet corn, onions and andoullie sausage burbles and spits in the cauldron before it's poured atop a red-and-white checked table cloth. But this isn't a Low Country boil down in the Carolinas somewhere; this is a Nautigal shrimp boil right here in Madison.
"It's really an event," says Jack von Rutenberg, of von Rutenberg Ventures, the family responsible for long-time seafood-and-steak strongholds Nautigal, Mariner's Inn and Captain Bill's. Nautigal added shrimp boils just last year, and they've proved so popular he plans to offer ten or fifteen more for the 2014 season.
At Mariner's, lobster boils provide guests with lobster in drawn butter, red potatoes, corn on the cob, Caesar salad, Key lime pie or cheesecake, and chardonnay. Not to be left out, this year Captain Bill's will launch an oyster roast.
"With it, we'll probably feature our famous chowder and other shellfish like clams or mussels," says von Rutenberg. "Kind of a ‘roll your sleeves up and have a good time' meal."
These outdoor events help showcase what Nautigal, Mariner's and Captain Bill's already do best: provide stellar seafood at a good value in a unique setting. Captain Bill's three signature dishes—crab cakes, coconut shrimp, and chowder—have been featured on the Food Network. Seasonal specialties round out the menu, such as the Seared Ahi Tuna, which is served with a hoisin-sweet chili-soy glaze. The Lighter Fare menu features popular dishes in smaller portion sizes for those hoping to eat less, spend less, save time, or all three.
This fresh seafood smorgasbord rivals what you'd find in any coastal town, and it's just a taste of much more.
"Gone are the days where people can't get really, really fresh seafood in the Midwest," says Mike White, partner and chef at Biaggi's Italian Restaurant. "That just doesn't happen anymore." White has buyers in San Diego, Honolulu, and Portland, Maine. They prowl the markets at auction or on the docks, purchasing the desired fish; they process it, package and ship it via UPS, FedEx or courier. With the Hawaiian swordfish special offered recently at his restaurant, for example, White's distributor was purchasing that fish at auction weekly. For his farmed salmon, a hand-selected, clean, fresh Canadian-raised salmon is chosen out of Portland and shipped overnight to Biaggi's.
"When I started in the Midwest as a chef twenty years ago, that was really unheard of," says White. "There were small seafood houses out of Chicago that would distribute to us, but they probably had five or six or even ten more days of age on them than they do now, coming into our restaurant. Today, it's between twenty-four to forty-eight hours out of the water to our door."
Seafood is a big draw at Biaggi's: their Fish of the Day entree is often the top seller on the entire menu, and their salmon is a close second. Seafood-infused pastas, such as Capellini di Mare (featuring shellfish) or Lobster and Fettucini, are very popular year-round. Local trout and ivory char, from Wisconsin's Rushing Waters fish farm, round out the seasonal menu. And, although Wisconsinites eat their fair share of cod that has arrived at restaurants as frozen fillets, this is not the case at Biaggi's.
"We buy fresh cod off the market in Portland as well, and that's something you don't see very often on menus in the Midwest," says White. "It's of a considerable cost to us to bring that product in fresh instead of frozen, but we appreciate that freshness and we know our customers do, too."
Chuck Taylor of Blue Marlin also credits increased access to fresh seafood as fundamental to the success his business has garnered for nearly a quarter-century.
"The freshness of the products is key to all of our food, but in particular seafood, I think," says Taylor. "It's nice here that we can get delivery six days a week, allowing us to order smaller and fresher portions."
Those smaller portions are featured on a tapas-style section of the menu, with smaller plates in the ten- to twelve-dollar range. Blue Marlin changes its menu every ten to twelve weeks, experimenting with presentation and sides; rather than the traditional vegetables and starches, for example, you'll often find sweet potato or celeriac purees, or a king crab risotto.
"I think we have this reputation as kind of a celebration destination, and part of that is a misconception that seafood is so expensive to buy," says Taylor. "But like most restaurants, we try to keep our prices in the mid-$20 and accommodate people with smaller plates as well."
One terrific introduction to Blue Marlin's seafood offerings is the wildly popular bouillabaisse, a savory sampler of fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crabmeat simmered in a fennel-saffron broth. Almost as popular is the restaurant's Shrimp Diablo Pasta, which features shrimp and penne in a spicy cream sauce. Seasonal offerings drive the seafood menu, in particular, from halibut in the spring to Great Lakes walleye in the summer. And May at the Blue Marlin means the same thing that it does in Maryland: soft-shell crab season.
"They're extremely popular here. It surprised me how popular they are here in the Midwest," says Taylor, of the crabs. "So we do all kinds of different preparations, including a delicious soft-shell sandwich."
Of course there's no seafood feast more native to Wisconsin than an old-fashioned fish fry, where the setting and the experience is often as big a draw as the meal itself and worth a journey to find.
For instance, about thirty minutes outside of Madison, toward Milwaukee, down Highway A and on the banks of the Crawfish River, in a little town called Milford, savvy travelers and locals alike gather for what WMTV-TV Facebook fans recently voted "Best Fish Fry in the Area."
"We are literally in the middle of nowhere," says Crawfish Junction's Robb Reed. "This really is a destination location where people probably aren't expecting to find such a delicious fish fry, let alone exotic stuff like alligator tail."
In addition to traditional deep-fried or baked cod, Crawfish Junction serves blackened or pan-fried Canadian walleye, fresh lake perch, salmon, deep-fried crawfish, and—one of the biggest sellers of all—fresh, hand-breaded Florida alligator tail marinated for a minimum of twenty-four hours and served with a signature spicy ranch Gator Sauce.
"We were also voted best for our variety," says Reed. "But I guess if I had to say what separates us, it's that we're really dedicated to high-quality product."
Reed says crowds flock to Crawford Junction because they can enjoy that unexpectedly fresh seafood in a casual, rustic setting.
"It's kind of a cross between an ‘Up North' lodge and a sports bar," says Reed. "It really is a unique dining experience."
For those who hope to create a succulent seafood dining experience in their own kitchens, that same access to a surprisingly wide variety of fresh, exotic, high-quality raw product exists here in Madison, too.
"We are a locally owned and operated retail fish market here in town for close to forty years now," says Scott Kennedy, owner of Seafood Center. "We do some take-out fish fry, soups and sides, but our main focus is the best fresh seafood you can get in the Midwest. Or the world, as we like to think."
From the time Kennedy started working at Seafood Center as a high school sophomore in 1979, he's seen a lot of change in the industry. The rise of aquaculture farming, a growing focus on sustainability and, above all, the increasing convenience of shipping fresh seafood have been game-changers for his business, just as they were for the local restaurants. But Kennedy has also had a front row seat to the thriving "foodie" trend. Today's Madisonians are as educated and interested as ever in the nutritional benefits, food politics and epicurean possibilities of fresh seafood, and Seafood Center has risen to meet that demand.
"There's been a definite change in our customer base. People are more focused on their food, what they're eating and what they're doing with it," says Kennedy. "Of course, there are still a number of people who want to try new things but are intimidated, and we are here to help them with that. If you've never cooked a piece of salmon in your entire life, we'll walk you through it."
Whether it's a fresh piece of halibut or a whole roasted salt-encrusted sea bass, Kennedy's best advice is to keep it simple.
"Flavors are purest if they're cooked simply," he explains.
At Metcalfe's Market, seafood manager Brad Edmunds receives fresh seafood deliveries six times a week, allowing him to carry up to forty or fifty species at a time.
"A lot of people in this part of the country are still afraid to experiment with fish because we're not on one of the coasts, where it's been a staple in most of these people's lives," says Edmunds. "But we have recipe ideas here at Metcalfe's, and cooking suggestions, and our people behind the counter have been here many, many years and offer a wealth of knowledge."
Like the Seafood Center, sustainability and food politics are a high priority for Metcalfe's Market. Metcalfe's partners with a California organization called FishWise to ensure transparency in its harvesting and other environmental implications, and in April 2011 Greenpeace rated Metcalfe's one of the top sustainable seafood markets in the country. But it's the variety and accessibility of both product and knowledge that provides the most value to customers, and this is an exciting time of year for seasonal options.
"We just brought in our first fresh, wild-caught salmon from Alaska a few weeks ago, after a tricky winter with ice on the Great Lakes," says Edmunds. "Fresh halibut is here now, too. Once all those fresh seasons start, people get really excited."
The problem Edmunds hears most often from customers is that they're afraid of undercooking fish, which unfortunately leads them to overcook the fish.
"Most fish firm up and flake to the touch when they're done, and it's usually in half the time people think," says Edmunds. "Start simple with baking, set it at 350 degrees and check it. I think once people take that first bold step, they find out it's really a lot easier than they think."