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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From Maine to Milwaukee

Public Market’s East Coast eats

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The Milwaukee Public Market continues to adapt in its search for the right group of vendors. El Rey recently closed, but Rupena’s is now selling its meats at the market. Another change can be found at the St. Paul Fish Co., where this vendor of all types of seafood continues to expand.

St. Paul Fish Co. began as an oyster bar named Karen Jean’s offering soups and sandwiches. Tables were added in January when a neighboring wine merchant moved out. The seating is very casual, in the spirit of the oyster bar. The menu has seen the addition of a dozen grilled seafood entrees, as well as a bouillabaisse; plus, the popular Wednesday $12.95 lobster special is now available every day.

What do you get for $12.95? You receive a 1-pound whole Maine lobster served with fries and a small cup of coleslaw. The lobster is accompanied by drawn butter served in a plastic cup. The claws and tail have been slightly cracked, but you will still need the provided nutcracker to remove the shell. It is a bit of a mess, but plenty of extra napkins can be found at every table. The abundance of lobsters and the casual setting make you feel like you could be dining along the coast of Maine—just pretend that St. Paul Avenue is the Atlantic Ocean.

A 1-pound lobster minus the shell is not a huge amount of food. In Maine these are referred to as “chicken” lobsters, so it is wise to add a starter course. The two soups ($2.50-$3.50) are a shrimp and sausage gumbo and a New England clam chowder. The inexpensive gumbo has plenty of shrimp and sausage, as well as onion, bell pepper, okra and just a touch of rice. The flavor of the file powder improves with time, as the spices settle to the bottom of the bowl. The chowder is a good one, with broth that’s creamy rather than starchy. It has more celery that potatoes, plus faint hints of wine. There is also a mixed green salad ($3.95) with cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. The blueberry vinaigrette dressing, sweet within reasonable limits, is amply applied.

Oysters on the half shell remain a sound choice. These very fresh oysters are properly served over shaved ice. Another nice feature is that they may be ordered individually ($1- $2 each); they also come in varieties that change by the day. The cheapest are Blue Points from Virginia and Gold Bands from Louisiana. In the mid-range are Canadian Malpeques and Rhode Island Watch Hills. The smallest and priciest are Kumamotos from Washington (these are the best, though the Malpeques run a close second).

Cooked starters include finger food like the inexpensive shrimp kabob ($3.95), a whole skewer of grilled shrimp. Blue crab cocktail claws ($8.95) arrive partially shelled and ready to dip into a tasty caper aioli. The crab cake ($7.95) is of blue crab, which I consider the best in a cake. It is quite meaty and comes with chopped lettuce, tomato and a decent remoulade sauce. Fried surf clam strips ($4.95) are about as good as fried clams get, with a good batter and a flavor that only comes from cooking with very clean oil.

The grilled entrees ($9.95-$15.95) can be as humble as catfish or tilapia, along with pricier choices such as grouper and Chilean sea bass. It is refreshing to see blue marlin on the list, as it is a very under-appreciated fish. The market is proud of its day boat scallops, too. The entree ($15.95) arrives with just four, but they are large, simply grilled and served with a sauce of beurre blanc or a fruit salsa. The entrees also include short-grained rice, fresh baby carrots and pea pods. A fish fry is served every day. The cod ($9.95) is one of the most popular items here, and has a beer batter that uses Milwaukee’s own Schlitz.

Arrive in a casual mood and be prepared for the service of a New England clam shanty or lobster pound. Napkins are of paper, the oysters arrive in a plastic deli basket and the caper aioli, like the drawn butter, arrives in a plastic cup. The beer list is small, but the wine list is a little better. Operating hours are limited to 8 p.m. during the week and 6 p.m. on weekends. The market also tends to get quite noisy when filled with customers; in return, however, you get seafood of top quality and freshness. Afterward, search out the market for a dessert—perhaps the pistachio baklava at Aladdin?


St. Paul Fish Co.400 N. Water St. (Milwaukee Public Market) (414) 220-8383 $$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

St. Paul Fish Co. | Photos by Kate Engbring