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La Sirena Clandestina, Honey Butter Fried Chicken Provide Warm Comfort On A Cold Night

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 25, 2013 4:40PM

While wildlife agencies attempt to keep Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes we’re reminded that the peak season for fishing another invasive species is fast approaching.

Rainbow smelt were first reported in Lake Michigan in 1923. They sneaked in via Michigan’s Crystal Lake, connected to Lake Michigan by a stream flowing into the Betsie River. Once smelt made their way into the Great Lakes they spawned like there was no tomorrow. Here in Chicago the best time to fish for smelt runs from April 10 to April 20, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

In Lake Superior, however, it’s been smelt season for a while, where the water temperatures and food chain results in smelt that are gigantic in size, compared to their Lake Michigan brethren. Fried properly, they make a sweet and salty treat.

For last night’s collaborative dinner between Honey Butter Fried Chicken and La Sirena Clandestina, chef John Manion served up fresh Lake Superior smelt, fried to a crisp with tartar sauce spiced with Malagueta pepper, a habanero and ginger slaw and black beans and rice teeming with chunks of pork. I could have eaten the smelt without the tartar, the sweetness of their flesh cutting through the hearty crunch of the breading encasing them. The slaw made for a surprisingly zesty complement, but the heat here wasn't from the habanero, but the malagueta tartar. Manion and his staff turned out another gem of a dish as they have been since La Sirena opened.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, meanwhile, offered another example of why their upcoming venture will be one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2013. This iteration of their fried chicken featured some heat on the breading, a hearty dollop of honey butter sitting on the side that our servers insisted we not be stingy applying to the crispy skin. The chicken was served with cavolo nero (dark kale) drizzled with yogurt, pickled red onion, lime and cilantro, and a pimento mac and cheese that was a knockout side dish. Cikowski and Kulp said they anticipate a mid-June opening for Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

This morning, though, all we can think about is that smelt. It’s tempting to run and buy some nets and a fishing license, and find a place along the lakefront to park and catch the little critters in a couple weeks.