Photography By Kath Usitalo Unless Noted

The bartender places a white ceramic bowl before me on the black marble countertop. The whitefish salad is a twist on smoked whitefish like I’ve never tasted. Composed of grains, capers, preserved citrus, smoked whitefish, olive oil and other seasonal tastes, it’s just the sort of dish The Marq restaurant focuses on, revealing nuanced, delicious flavors. Austin Fure and Ed Manson, chefs and co-owners of the recent addition to the Marquette dining scene, create and execute delicious, locally sourced meals. Whitefish from Lake Superior, just a few blocks away, is a regular item on their menu.

Farm-to-table restaurants like The Marq relish the versatile and plentiful fish, which for hundreds of years was a staple of Native American diets and a delightful discovery for European explorers. Whitefish in various incarnations helped sustain the labor force during the Upper Peninsula’s mining and lumber booms of the late 19th century.

COOKING WITH WHITEFISH

A Great Lakes-region native, whitefish are in the salmon family but look similar to herring. This specificity to upper Michigan’s fresh waters makes whitefish an essential culinary focus for travelers to the area. The delicate, flaky fish is often served beer battered (especially on Fridays), broiled, baked or sautéed. It is smoked, spiced and found in paté, sausage and dips. The salty, smoky sausage makes a good picnic item, and chunks of smoked whitefish, paired with a crisp white Michigan wine, is delicious on a plain cracker with quick-pickle red onions.

Locals and regular visitors have their favorite sources for smoked fish, which in the Upper Peninsula is smoked skin-on over a hardwood fire. Roadside stores like Gustafson’s in Brevort, on US-2 along Lake Michigan, sell sleeves of Ritz and saltine crackers as the simple accompaniment.

STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE

Further along US-2 in Naubinway, a fishing village about 45 minutes west of the Mackinac Bridge, King’s Market sells its fish frozen and smoked. But at their dockside wholesale operation they’ll fillet and retail whitefish fresh from Lake Michigan. In Marquette, area restaurants source their whitefish from Thill’s Fish House at the Lower Harbor on Lake Superior. Thill’s is a fourth generation family business serving not only the restaurant community for over 50 years, but the public, who can buy fresh whitefish fillets, homemade whitefish dip, sausage and fish smoked in-house at their waterfront hut. In a global food market, it’s rare to source food so close to its environment.

Recently, society has turned its attention toward more sustainable food production methods. Many of these approaches aren’t new, but hearken back to farming practices used by Native Americans. Farmers like Rowan and Shailah Bunce of Rock River Farms, in Chatham, turn filleted fish leftovers from Thill’s into fertilizer, which they use to enrich soil for vegetables and plants sold locally.

Chef Austin of The Marq uses produce from Rock River Farm, creating an admirably full, local food cycle. His take on the whitefish salad is instinctive, with the saltiness of the smoked fish and capers heightened by citrus, grounded with whole grains and spiced with a bite of local mustard greens. I savor each bite, taste and environment synchronized in flavor.

Whitefish Sampler

Here’s just a taste of the whitefish specialties at northern Michigan restaurants most of the year through. Note that menus are constantly changing, and occasionally in winter ice prevents boats from venturing out, so fresh fish may not be available.

CHAMBERLIN’S OLE FOREST INN, CURTIS: Whitefish baked on a hardwood plank is a specialty.

THE MARQ, MARQUETTE: Smoked whitefish salad, whitefish fish fry with cabbage kohlrabi slaw.

MISSION POINT RESORT, MACKINAC ISLAND: Multiple takes on whitefish, from baked smoked dip  served with tomato jam to a crisped whitefish sandwich and  the elaborate Pan Roasted Mackinac Whitefish “Coupe de Ville.”

PETERSON’S FISH MARKET/FOUR SUNS FISH &  CHIPS OUTDOOR CAFE, HANCOCK: Smoked, fresh, fried fish basket and smoked fish chowder.

SWEET WATER CAFÉ, MARQUETTE: Pan-fried fillet with a mushroom sauce, whitefish cakes  and a Caesar salad with whitefish.

THE VIERLING RESTAURANT, MARQUETTE: Whitefish bites, smoked whitefish appetizer, whitefish chowder and fillets served four ways.

VILLAGER PUB, CHARLEVOIX: Fresh whitefish from neighboring John Cross Fisheries,  battered and deep-fried.


This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

Author

Rachel Mills is a lifelong Upper Peninsula resident and world traveler who lives in her 100-year-old square log farmhouse on 40 acres next to the Laughing Whitefish River. She teaches writing at Northern Michigan University and is working on a collection of essays about the important of food and bringing everyone to the table.

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