HOG BUTCHER TO THE WORLD, WE’RE ALSO good at turning them into every kind of charcuterie, with players like West Loop Salumi and Publican Quality Meats leading a long list of local cured pork specialists. But the equivalent for seafood is basically nowhere to be found.
That changes this Saturday when Chefs Bill Montagne and Jennifer Kim open Snaggletooth in Lakeview. The 17-seat counter-serve seafood deli from Montagne, the former Le Bernardin chef who came back to Chicago to open the pricy Loop seafood house C Chicago, and Kim (who was one of his cooks at C Chicago, and his girlfriend and business partner in Snaggletooth), will specialize in cured fish and Greek yogurt-based schmears, complemented by Sparrow coffee and Rare Tea Cellar tea.
The space is cute and eclectic (“Pinterest-y,” in Kim’s words), with hand-written menus and signage alongside a tiny open kitchen. I noticed the bagels (from New York Bagel & Bialy) hanging behind the counter on a homemade board first, before being drawn to the case full of vividly colored, cured fish.
There might be a handful of different fish options available on any given day, with items like pastrami-cured sea trout and olive oil matzoh paying homage to old New York-style Jewish delis. Montagne and Kim also make their own pastries, including Liège waffles—which I discovered taste surprisingly good with a swipe of black lime nori or spicy mango pickle schmear. As you head upstairs to sit down, you’ll notice the wall lined with artwork ranging in subject from seafood to David Bowie, most of them items from Kim’s former apartment.
The two have no investors or employees and poured their life savings into Snaggletooth. It’s a passion project built on the simple dream of making delicious seafood that nourishes guests and makes them happy. “We wanted to return to the craft of cooking,” Montage says. “We care, and we will personally make everything for you.”
“We both come from back of the house,” Kim says. “But we love talking and interacting with people. That’s something that was missing as we moved up in kitchens. You become so far removed from the guest. The neighborhood that we’re in is amazing. We haven’t even opened and people are knocking on the door and asking if there’s anything we need. The welcome from the community has been overwhelming and it’s fantastic. Those connections and that relationship building with the neighborhood is so important. When you walk in the door, you will see me and Bill, every day.”
IT WAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF OPENING in April 2015 when the owners of Chicago Cut Steakhouse launched a leviathan of a seafood restaurant, C Chicago, with Montagne at the helm. But what was meant to be a rival to Lettuce Entertain You’s long running Shaw’s Crab House ran aground on a legendarily scathing review from Jeff Ruby in Chicago magazine. Montagne was out of there after just six and a half months.
We love talking and interacting with people. That’s something that was missing. You become so far removed from the guest.
Today he tries to look on the positive. “We all have challenging times, and you learn from it and grow from it,” he says. “[Snaggletooth] never would have come to fruition without that.” Perhaps most importantly, it was at C Chicago that Montagne met Kim, his girlfriend and Snaggletooth business partner.
“Our work ethics and the way that we thought about food really aligned,” Kim says. “We started talking about doing a concept together and we both had backgrounds in seafood. It’s something we’re extremely passionate about. There’s nowhere else in Chicago that you can get something like Bill’s citrus-cured trout. We used that as a baseline and developed the concept around the fish. The seafood is the focus and we never want to lose sight of that.”
I dined at C Chicago only once, on a Monday when Montagne was not in the kitchen. My meal admittedly had more misses than hits, but the citrus-cured sea trout, garnished with dill, coriander, green apple and watermelon radish was both the tastiest and prettiest dish I tried. Lucky for me, I can find it again now on Southport, but on an onion bagel with scallion schmear.
“Our curing process is very gentle,” Montagne explains. “For the trout, we use 15 different spices—pink and black peppercorn, coriander, ajowan, dill, fennel seed and more.” All of these spices are displayed behind the counter, meticulously labeled and organized. “We toast the spices and wrap the fish in cheesecloth so it’s a much more gentle cure,” he says, describing a technique he first learned from Chef Gray Kunz in New York. “A more traditional cure might be applied directly to the fish. But with cheesecloth, you don’t have to rinse the fish afterwards and wash away the flavor. When you say it out loud, of course it makes sense. It’s one of those dummy moments where you think you can’t believe it took this long to figure it out.”
It’s this technique that imparts a floral sweetness to a buttery jasmine tea-cured sea trout belly and gives kombu and kaffir lime-cured tuna a super fragrant citrus spritz. The flavors here walk a delicate line between light and bold, with nothing falling in the overly salted camp, like cured fish often is.
Gallery: Seafood and schmears at Snaggletooth
Photos by David Cutrano
The bagel and schmear bar may give the seafood a run for its money though, with kimchi, black lime nori and honey walnut available, along with raspberry rose jam. Most everything is available to take home too, along with some select retail items from Rare Tea Cellar and a wickedly addictive savory date and sage granola with puffed wild rice and amaranth. “Going out on our own really makes us uncomfortable and scared, but it’s so much fun,” Kim says. “Eighteen hours a day just flies by.”
The opening menu, including uni butter brown rice and trout lox with charred scallion schmear, truly impressed me. But don’t expect anything to stay on the menu for long. “It’s going to be a very dynamic menu,” Kim says. “A lot of chefs say it’s a seasonal menu but we really mean it. We’re only getting what we think we need for one or two days, then changing it to something else. We don’t want you to come in next month and see that it’s the same thing as last month. We’ll have a couple signature items that we never take off. But we really want it to be rotational. It’s fun for us to experiment and see what works and have fun in the kitchen again.”
When she’s not eating all the dessert in Chicago, Amber Gibson travels the world as a freelance writer for Four Seasons Magazine, Saveur, Departures, Hemispheres and American Way. You can follow her world travels on Instagram @amberyv and Twitter @ambergib.
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