Dirk Flanigan has been cooking in Chicago for a couple of decades, most recently at sister restaurants The Gage and Henri that he helped develop with local restaurateur Billy Lawless.
Now he’s teaming up with David Flom and Matt Moore, owners of The Local Chicago and Chicago Cut, for their latest venture, Ocean Cut, which opened May 5.
The menu features a “fish market” section of market-priced whole fish on display, as well as composed dishes and steak. The steak comes from sister restaurant Chicago Cut, but Flanigan adds some oceanic touches to it.
The executive chef recently discussed his seafood preparations and his customers’ demands with Nation’s Restaurant News.
We have a lot of casual, shareable items, and then on the flip side we have some pretty luxurious ones.
Shareable items are like pork belly with snails, a couple different octopus preparations, an ocean charcuterie plate with house-smoked sablefish, a terrine with barbecued eel and foie gras, seafood sausages and things of that nature.
And on the more luxurious side?
We have Dover sole that we do in a pretty classic brown butter preparation. The brown butter does have ajowan [a seed with thyme-like flavor used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking] and cardamom and some other things to make it a little more exciting, but still very luxurious and decadent.
And we have a seafood tower called The Amalfi, and it comes jam-packed full of lobster and king crab and shrimp and mussels and oysters, prawns and ceviche and salads and crudos. It’s amazing that it all stays on the tower. And they’re accompanied by a cocktail sauce that we hop up with a little bit of tamarind, and a brandied mustard sauce that I adapted from my father’s recipe from when I was a child and we used to get blue crabs in Florida. He’d cook them and chill them and we’d eat them with this brandy mustard sauce. I took it into a different realm by giving it some earthiness with gochujang [a spicy Korean bean paste]. It’s got this real low funkiness from the chile, but a familiarity, and acid from lemon.
Umeboshi [Japanese salted plum] is also an accouterment that’s really nice with the crab or oysters, and I’m also doing a yuzu or sudachi [Japanese citrus fruits] sorbet — usually sudachi, but if I can’t get one I get the other.
You have steak, too, right?
We’ve got a nice section of Chicago Cut classic steaks — bone-in rib eye, New York strip and a couple different sizes of filet, all dry-aged a minimum of 35 days. I wanted to find a way to bring the ocean to them without bringing seafood to them, so I’ve been doing a pickled vegetable salad with sea beans. It’s just enough to give it a little aced — kind of a break for the steak — but also a salty, oceanic pop.
I’ve also got a swordfish done as kind of a riff on steak au poivre, with a brandy and peppercorn sauce sauce, but I use a little bit of fish stock as well as veal stock, and it’s also served with some nice cubes of aromatic compound butter that adds a little bit of dynamic in each bite.
What’s in the compound butter?
A bunch of things: toasted fennel seeds, smoked salt, basil seeds, basil buds, garlic flowers, pink, black and green peppercorns, lemon zest and some super-finely chopped rosemary and thyme.
We have a big seafood wall that’s sold in our “fish market” section of the menu. You can pick out a fish and choose a preparation.
Today I’ve got vermillion snapper, yellowtail snapper, red sea bream, black bass, striped bass, dover sole, branzino, daurade, scorpion fish and gurnard, which is a member of the flying fish family. It’s pretty cool.
Yeah. It’s a big seafood wall.
How do you manage inventory with something like that?
You just can’t be afraid to 86 items, because nothing’s worse than something going wrong. We can’t waste stuff, especially in this day and age.
If I’m using something that’s farmed, there’s kind of has stigma to that, so it has to be a marker for sustainability, like Ora King salmon [farm-raised in New Zealand] or the branzino farmed out of Greece.
Branzino’s the number one seller. About 20 percent of the people who come in order branzino.
It outsells salmon?
Unbelievably, yes. Even during [wild] king salmon season. It’s funny, right when [a seasonal fish like] halibut comes out, there’s this honeymoon period when people are like, “Aw man! Awesome, this is in season.” Then they go to five restaurants and have halibut and then they’re done with it.
Mostly pretty fish sell, but then the gurnard and scorpion fish are exceptions to the rule.
Do you just sell wild sockeye and king salmon or do you work with other species, too, like keta and coho?
I do [work with other species]. But if you’re going to have it on your menu, you want it consistent, and a lot of times [with wild fish] you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. Having to explain to customers [when they complain that the fish is different] that last time they were here it was coho, or sockeye — that’s when places like Ora King and Faroe Island and Atlantic Sapphire come in, and they have great fish.
But whenever you have a wild Copper River salmon, that flavor is irreplaceable.
What other seafood are customers excited about?
Whitefish. I get it from Lake Superior and Door County [Wis.] and it sells like mad.
I’m doing it with Pernod and charred fennel, and a little saffron poached onion.
I’ll use wild salmon when we can get nice ones, but right now I’m using Ora King salmon. We also use Faroe Island salmon. Right now I’m doing Ora King with butter poached nectarines, purslane and toasted grains. We make a beurre monté with black vinegar, a little bit of allspice and star anise. We poach the nectarines in that and also use that for the sauce at the end.
The toasted grains are quinoa, freeze-dried peas, puffed purple sticky rice and puffed wild rice. We make a kind of savory granola out of them by mixing them with egg white and baking it into granola chunks.
We have bigeye tuna. Every time I’ve done tuna in the past, I’ve done preparations that were all about fennel, or all about citrus, and the guest always says, “You know, can we get some soy sauce?”
So now I’m just doing an orange ponzu sauce so they don’t have to ask. I’m using a little orange blossom water, orange zest, white soy, mirin and sambal [oelek — an Indonesian chile-and-vinegar sauce]. Then I float a few slabs of ginger in it. That’s served with bok choy that is just a really quick sauté that’s tossed with fresh orange segments. And then there’s a black sesame emulsion that gets dotted around the plate.
We’ve got a few pasta dishes on the menu, and being a seafood restaurant the initial idea was linguine and clams, but being the chef that I am, I was like, “You know, we’re not doing linguine.” So I’m doing pacchieri.
That means something like ‘a smack in the face,’ right?
It does. It [refers to] the sound of smacking, because whenever you’re dumping it out of the pan they hit each other and smack. They’re like rigatoni, but so big that they can’t support themselves. It’s one of my favorite pastas. So we do it with black garlic and clams, and a little bit of white wine, regular garlic, a lot of basil, a lot of parsley and then we hit it with a big knob of ’nduja [a soft, spicy sausage from Calabria] that instantly starts to melt. It’s pretty cool stuff.
And then the other pasta we’re doing in-house is a squid-ink tagliolini with an octopus ragù, San Marzano tomatoes, a little bit of heirloom tomato and basil.
Then we’ve got a crudo section with about six crudos, such as scallop done with grapefruit, shaved pumpernickel, olive oil and sea salt; and white tuna with fennel pollen and fennel fronds and fennel vinaigrette.
Do they ask for soy sauce with that, too?
Sometimes, but I’ve made a salty solution that I eye-drop around the plate that seems to satisfy people.
And it gives you a more neutral saltiness than soy sauce.
Yeah. It’s not as overpowering. I use a lot of white soy to combat that as well.
I also have a hamachi crudo with bird peppers, basil and umeboshi. We take umeboshi and puree it so it’s got that really nice round, salted super-satisfying flavor.