Lila Kalick: A fabulous fishy feast in store at Monahan's

BY LILA KALICK
Local Cuisine Columnist
Published February 8, 2011

Nestled in the back corner of Kerrytown Market and Shops and surrounded by a bevy of high-end bodegas, a craft store and a Korean burger joint, you’ll find Monahan’s Seafood Market. I’d heard Monahan’s mentioned many times during my stay in Ann Arbor, but didn’t get a chance to travel down there until just recently when I dragged a friend along with me for lunch.

Typically, Michigan is not thought of as a seafood destination. Though the state slogan “Great Lakes, Great Times” serves as a perfect Facebook album title for incoming freshmen, one can’t reasonably expect a favorite oceanic occupant to magically materialize in a freshwater lake near here.

Monahan’s goes to great lengths, however, to ensure its selection goes beyond the limits of regionalism. Along with its assortment of freshwater classics like Lake Superior whitefish, smelt and walleye, daily shipments of Maryland soft-shell crabs, New England cod, Maine shrimp and many other seafood staples from around the country make it a worthy competitor of its many maritime-located peers. In its 2004 “100 Special Issue,” Saveur Magazine named Monahan’s one of its top markets.

Moreover, Monahan’s friendly and knowledgeable staff will guide any wayward seafarer or shy neophyte in the right direction. Their suggestions put me right on course for one of the best lunches I’ve had in Ann Arbor.

Stepping up to the turquoise-colored lunch counter, you’ll be greeted warmly by one of the market’s fishmongers and a massive hanging swordfish. That and a large buoy ball hanging from a black net are just a few of the touches that add to the wharf-like ambiance of the eatery. The service was no-fuss. We ordered at the counter and sat down. Within ten minutes the food was ready and brought to our table — no tip expected.

The space is more market-like than a formal restaurant, meaning seating options are sparse. The counter has a couple of high chairs, but perhaps more cozy are the square-shaped tables with seating for two around the corner. They are covered with white paper, crayons available if you love to doodle while you wait to down a delish meal.

On the menu are the mainstays: mussels steamed in white wine and garlic sauce, fried calamari and fish and chips, as well as some more daring combinations for those who aren’t afraid of fishiness. I have a roommate who cringes every time she sees any form of marine life. Perhaps Cajun shrimp salad, bluefish teriyaki and hand-shucked oysters aren’t for everyone.

However, if you’re not a wimp about fish, the best part of the menu — hands down — is the option to “pick a fresh fish.” The staff shows you to a large glass display case stuffed with the day’s selections. The fish available vary by season. Price is based on the market value.

Choose from an array of sauces to cook yours in — tartar, grenobloise (caper sauce, for non-French speakers), remoulade (another tartar-like sauce usually flavored with curry powder or pickles), teriyaki, mustard-mayo, mustard-dill-mayo, aioli, sweet and spicy Thai and San Remo butter (sun-dried tomatoes, white wine, basil and chives). I mixed the Spanish mackerel our server suggested with this last sun-dried sauce.

My friend chose the Atlantic salmon burger, served on a bun with red onion, lettuce, tomato and a dill sauce. She added avocado to it. The salmon was surprisingly succulent — at $6.95, it was a steal for its freshness. And they only charged her 45 cents for the avocado extra.

The mackerel was the greatest part of our meal. Two perfectly seasoned pieces with a fresh lemon slice stared salaciously up at me from my plate. Sarah stole a bite and yelled, “Holy mackerel! I’m getting that next time.”

A portion of hand-cut Cajun fries, a worthy side for your seafood, is big enough for two to share. Something about Cajun spices can warm up any cold winter’s day. Salt and vinegar, ketchup and hot sauce sitting just above each table along the blue barrier are readily available whenever you want them.

Monahan’s is a true delight. It’s worth a brisk walk from Central Campus into the heart of historic Kerrytown for lunch. The peppy atmosphere, fast and friendly service and fabulous fish are sure to brighten your day.