Smelt My Heart

Nightwood gets clever with a local, seasonal fish

Each spring, seasonal vegetables–like asparagus, peas, favas and friends–hog the spotlight.

But there's a delicacy even more fleeting than the long-awaited produce: the Michigan smelt, a tiny, mild-flavored fish that spawns in northern Lake Michigan each spring–which makes a stellar snack when battered, fried and served whole.

This season's smartest take on the dish is at Nightwood, where smelt are coated in spiced flour and panko breadcrumbs before a quick dip in the fryer. And then comes the fun part: They're served Buffalo-wing-style, with a buttery, fire-engine-red Crystal Hot Sauce beurre blanc and house-made crème fraîche (though unlike with true wings, the sauce sits demurely on the side). We'd take them over wings any day.

The dish is the result of the restaurant's decision to serve more local fish. Chef de cuisine Jason Vincent–who fished for smelt while growing up in Maine–is spearheading the smelt effort by pickling and salt-curing as many as he can while the season lasts.

Vincent expects the run to end any day; post-season, look for the pickled smelts in salad and the salt-cured smelts scrambled with eggs and asparagus, as well as in a smoked pork and cured smelt torchon.

It's further proof that good things, especially fish, can come in small packages.

Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St.; 312-526-3385 or nightwoodrestaurant.com