Restaurant serving up smelt

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A legendary Chicago fish: Michelle Hobbs, general manager of Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant inside Bass Pro Shops in Portage, shows off the eatery's smelt entree. | Photo by Amy Dickens

How to cook smelt

Ingredients:

1 pound clean smelt

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup seasoned flour (add seasoned salt,
garlic powder and black pepper to taste,
optional dash of cayenne)

Oil for frying

Directions:

Ready deep fryer or heat one to two inches of oil in a deep heavy pan to 325 degrees. Dip smelt in egg wash, then coat with seasoned flour. Carefully add to hot oil. Fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve with tartar sauce.

Maps

The smelt run is on, but you do not have to don waders, grab nets and head to the Lake Michigan shore for a nighttime expedition to savor the flavor.

Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant, located inside Bass Pro Shops in Portage, has added the longtime seasonal favorite to its menu. The tiny, tasty fish are fried up shore style for a nostalgic surprise.

“I think one part of it has been just the surprise that we have it. It’s just not something you can find many places at all,” said Michelle Hobbs, general manager at Islamorada.

Smelt fishermen once lined the southern shores of Lake Michigan, tossing nets to catch the small bait fish by the bucket. Today, smelt have been largely overfished on the south shores reducing the annual catch and the number of fishermen willing to deal with the cold spring waters, she said.

“Nostalgic. That’s the feeling a lot of people have gotten out of it,” Hobbs said.

Diners are often surprised to find the tiny fried fish on the menu. She said the meal brings back memories of bonfires and everybody getting together and cooking them right there on the beach as they were caught.

“It was like an event. You’d get buckets full and coolers full. It’s something people really enjoyed,” Hobbs said.

Regionalizing the menu

Islamorada travels a little further north to find the bounty of smelt it needs to feed diners at its restaurants. Hobbs said the smelt are imported from Canada when the smelt run during the springtime, late March through May.

She said it has been fun to offer smelt at the restaurants and see the type of people who order the platter. Many diners have memories of eating smelt when they were younger or fishing for it themselves.

“I just love engaging in that kind of conversation. That’s something we get excited about here,” she said.

Smelt is a small delicate fish most commonly served fried with a light flour coating. The heads and guts are removed; however, since the fish is so small, the bones are left in, similar to a sardine. Diners who enjoy the yellow lake perch may find they like the smelt as well.

Islamorada currently is undergoing a complete menu revision that will focus on the regionalized specialties of its different locations. While the original Islamorada opened in the Florida Keys and spotlighted the bountiful seafood of that region, as the company has grown it has entered markets with their own regional seafood specialties.

Some of the changes will include the permanent addition of yellow lake perch, rainbow trout and walleye to the menu in this area. The new menu is expected to debut in late June.

“We’re excited. I would definitely say it is the best revision we have ever done,” she said.