THERE’S NO TASTE LIKE HOME. THESE NIAGARA AREA CATCHES ARE MAKING A SPLASH ON YOUR DINNER TABLE. 

“It’s smaller and can be served whole unlike the larger ocean fish that you’ll find filleted. I like the whole fish style of presentation.” – Ross midgley

The fish wagon on the harbour in Goderich fries up fresh lake fish from the chilly waters behind it. I just put a basket of deep fried perch on the picnic table to cool and that’s when it happened. A larger than life seagull swooped down and scooped up an entire piece of perch in his beak. Fresh out of the deep fryer I can only imagine how it burned as I watched the large piece of fish slide down his bulging throat. He wobbled around on the pavement, dazed, then took flight over the lake.

For anyone who’s had Ontario fish cooked straight from the lake you know how irresistible it can be. In Niagara, I make an annual pilgrimage to Minor Fisheries in Port Colborne and buy a giant bag of whatever they’ve fished out of Lake Erie that day, always leaving with a large order of fried perch to eat on the way home.

There is water all around us in Niagara on the north, south and east sides and you can find something delicious swimming in any direction. Ontario has a chilly maritime influence that produces an ultra fresh, pristine, icy spring water character in all of the fish that come from the various lakes. Some call it the purity factor in Ontario fish; others just love it for the amazing freshness.

There are over 150 species of lake fish. They come from our lakes, rivers, streams and fish farms, the main fish species include pickerel (walleye), yellow and white perch, whitefish, smallmouth bass, chinook salmon, coho salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, northern pike, largemouth bass and carp.

To me it sounds like an awful lot of fish and makes me wonder why our markets and restaurants are dominated by ocean faring fish? When it comes to Niagara’s restaurants, it’s rare to find a chef who would consider lake fish an exciting alternative to salmon but, I have found a few exceptional chefs who do. The list includes Stephen Treadwell of Treadwells, Claudio Molico of Casa Mia, Dan LeBlanc of Benchmark, Jason Parsons of Peller and Ross Midgley of Ravine.

“I was a saltwater guy,” says Midgley who hails from Prince Edward Island. When he moved to Niagara he looked out onto Lake Ontario with a heavy heart. But it wasn’t long before “I was introduced to lake fish at my first job with Stephen Treadwell at

Queens Landing,” says Midgley. “I quickly learned about the diversity of really great fish out of the Great Lakes,” as he explains how he likes the delicate nature of yellow perch, the meatiness of white fish, the polish of pickerel. “I’ve even learned how to make chowder from whitefish,” says the man who easily blends his East Coast style with Niagara ingredients.

Midgley’s favourite is whitefish. He lightly smokes it, breaks it up and crafts a whitefish cake topped with a poached egg and a creatove leek based tartar sauce. The combination of flavours are rich, light and clean, much like the character of the whitefish itself. It’s a wonderful lunch sipped with a glass of Ravine Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.

“My favorite is pickerel,” says Executive Chef Claudio Molico of Casa Mia Ristorante in Niagara Falls. “It packs the most flavour, it’s delicate, flakey, firm, dense, almost milky flavour. It’s not overly fishy and that’s what customers like.”

At Casa Mia, Claudio lightly flours a fillet of pickerel and skillet sears it in a good quality olive oil. “We don’t really fuss a lot with lake fish,” he says explaining that when you start with a really fresh, regional product there is not much to do except a simple application to bring out the best in it. Sometimes Claudio will offer it with sautéed shrimp and leeks spooned overtop, something to add richness, compliment it’s elegance and give more of a celebratory experience to his customers. Other times he’s finished it Gremolata style (lemon, light garlic and parsley) for a clean, fresh flavour.

Midgley prefers the size of lake fish because it’s more manageable in a restaurant. “It’s smaller and can be served whole unlike the larger ocean fish that you’ll find filleted. I like the whole fish style of presentation.”

As the warm weather approaches, Molico’s thoughts are turning to cold preparations. He cures it with fresh lime juice and finds the elegant fish flavours come alive with fresh lime. They ramp up the excitement by serving it in the lounge with special cocktails for a well rounded mouthful. “It’s like an Italian ceviche,” says Molico.

To understand the flavour differences between ocean fish and lake fish better, Midgley explains that lake fish is more delicate than the heartier ocean fish. The skin of lake fish is more delicate and “that speaks to high heat (cooking) and a quick pan sear,” says Midgley. “A perfect crispy skin on pickerel for example is the hallmark of great lake fish. “It doesn’t get any better than a perfect crispy skin,” says Midgley.

Midgley would like everyone to cook more fish at home and has some advice to share. “If you can, let it fridge dry, that’s the best way,” says Midgley. Of course, fridge-drying means placing the fish uncovered, skin side up, in a single layer in the refrigerator for a day or two. “This way the skin dries and will crisp better”. But if you’re like me, you’re thinking of the uncontrolled aromas in your fridge and Midgley sympathizes. “So pat it dry with paper towels,” he offers as an alternative. Then heat a pan to the smoking point, season the fish and sear flesh side down first. Then flip it to crisp the skin. When a crispy skin is achieved, plate it with skin side proudly facing up. It’s sizzling food porn for fish lovers.

Ontario Fisheries like Minor are small and don’t have the ability to distribute their catch.  It’s why you won’t see Minor Perch on the menus of Ravine or Casa Mia. Because they don’t have the ability to deliver, Midgley and other chefs use lake fish friendly distribution companies like Seacore and Aqua Blue. “They’ll get me fresh lake fish and if they don’t have it, I don’t substitute.” The same goes for Molico who uses Tide & Vine to access his lake fish. “It all depends on the season and what’s available and when,” says Molico who won’t put lake fish on his regular menu. “I take advantage of it when it’s available, but it’s just not dependable.”

I asked Molico how he got his love of Ontario fish and he talks of his childhood. “I remember a bucket of smelts every spring. My mom would clean them, flour them and fry them up. We’d devour them! Wow, they were so good. That’s how I got my love of all tiny fish.” He sits back in his chair staring at me and a smile begins to widen across his face, “wow, that was a great memory,” he says in complete satisfaction.

By Lynn Ogryzlo