If you didn’t imagine finding more than battered and fried fish around C-U, you’re in for a real treat. Admittedly, this was not the easiest list to put together. There isn’t an ocean in sight for thousands of miles, and our seafood scene tends to reflect that.

I worked my way through several unimpressive fish dishes before arriving at this handful of gems. These dishes aren’t Midwest-good; they’re good, period.


Golden pan-fried cod sits over green baby zucchini in a yellow cream sauce. The fish is plated in a wide-rimmed white bowl. The cod is garnished with a sprig of green parsley. Photo by Tias Paul.Photo by Tias Paul.

Wild Icelandic Cod | Hamilton Walker’s

I treated myself to the Wild Icelandic Cod at Hamilton Walker’s which was part of their weekly chef's catch ($33) selection. This dish was elegant and delicious. The pan-seared cod sat atop baby zucchini in a pool of lemon sage cream. The cod was golden crisp with not a hint of oil in sight. It was butterflied open, and it had moist flakes the way perfectly cooked cod does. The flesh was sweet and lovely dragged through the lemon-sage sauce. The baby zucchini were seared on the cut side but still crisp, adding a lovely charred flavor without sacrificing texture.

The order came with complimentary bread from CI Bakehouse and two different kinds of butter. The bread was wonderful for sopping up the cream sauce and concentrating the subtle lemon flavor. The entree also came with salad options: mixed greens, Caesar, or spinach salad. I enjoyed the Caesar salad which came tossed with an assertive mustard dressing and a generous amount of Parmesan. This meal epitomized good food: fresh ingredients handled with care.

Hamilton Walker’s
201 N Neil St
Champaign
W-Th, Su 4 to 8 p.m.
F-Su 4 to 8:30 p.m.

The tacos are made of yellow corn tortillas and a colorful mix of salsa and grilled tilapia. The tacos are on a white plate, which rests on a table with a floral tablecloth. Photo by Tias Paul.Photo by Tias Paul.

Three Fish Tacos | Huaraches Moroleon Restaurant

If you are looking for a plate of comfort wrapped in warm corn tortillas, look no further than this plate of three fish tacos ($7.99) from Huaraches Moroleon in Urbana. The tacos featured perfectly grilled tilapia paired with smoky chipotle mayo, fresh corn and tomato salsa, and shredded lettuce. The tilapia was moist and flavorful and paired beautifully with the confetti of fresh ingredients. A squeeze of fresh lime juice tied the flavors together. I particularly loved the size of the tortillas: perfect to consume in two or three bites.

Bonus: the complimentary chips and salsa were super crisp and fresh. I’m looking forward to trying this dish again, next time with their fried fish and flour tortilla option.

Huaraches Moroleon
805 S Philo Rd
Urbana
T-Th 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F-Sa 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 8 p.m

Rich brown eel filet with a brown sauce wrapped in a band of seaweed. The sushi is on a black plate with chopsticks resting behind the sushi. The plate is on a wooden table. Photo by Tias Paul.Photo by Tias Paul.

Eel Nigiri | Sakanaya

The eel nigiri ($4.50) at Sakanaya was to die for. It featured tender eel brushed with a sweet and savory sauce over a small portion of rice. A single band of seaweed bound the sushi together. The luxuriously fatty skin on the eel kept the eel moist and added a delightfully unctuous texture. The skin also held the fish together and added an ever-so-slight crunch. I found that this sushi was already perfectly seasoned without any additional soy sauce. The amount of flavor and texture packed into this bite-sized morsel blew my mind.

Sakanaya
403 E Green St
Champaign
T-Th 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m.
Fr-Sa 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Su 4 to 9:30 p.m.

Golden fish filets soaked in a white bowl of red chile oil. The bowl is on top of a white table. Photo by Tias Paul.Photo by Tias Paul.

Fish Filet with Green Chili | Shiquan

When I want a fish entree that is guaranteed to please, I order this fish filet with green chili ($15.39) from Shiquan. It has salty fish filets, soft cooked and bathed in silky Szechuan peppercorn and chile oil. The order comes with a side of rice, but I rarely pair the fish with the rice. I ended up going straight for the fish with a pair of chopsticks, bowl to mouth. The tender fish holds together on the chopsticks just long enough to make it to my lips (how do they achieve that gorgeous texture?). The tingly numbing sensation of the Szechuan peppercorns coating the fish is delightful. This is one of those dishes that will warm you through and through.

Shiquan
212 E Green St
Champaign
W-M 11:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.

A white scallop, pink shrimp, and dark-shelled mussels sit atop black stained rice. The dish is garnished with bright green lime wedges and cilantro microgreens. The paella is in a black metal bowl with two handles on either side. Photo by Tias Paul.Photo by Tias Paul.

Paella Negra | Sun Singer Restaurant

I don’t usually play favorites; I’m too much of an emotional eater for that. But if you’re going to try one seafood dish around C-U, make it this paella negra ($26) from the Sun Singer. I admit, this item is a total cheat for this list. The closest mention of fish this paella had was the black cuttlefish ink that gave the rice its signature color, and, if we’re going to split hairs, cuttlefish is a mollusc. But with sea scallops, Tiger shrimp, calamari, and Prince Edward Island mussels, this dish is a must-have for any seafood lover.

When this dish was brought to my table, I was floored. It was gorgeous. The varied colors and textures made it nothing short of art. The bright seafood was embedded in a dark bed of saffron-scented rice and garnished with green lime wedges and cilantro microgreens. I made good use of the lime, drenching both the seafood and the rice in it. The acidity woke up the subtler flavors and made a refreshing pairing with the cilantro. I started with the grilled scallop at the center of the plate. Seared to rich mahogany on the top and bottom, it was sweet and cut like softened butter. Next, I dug into the plump and juicy morsels of deliciousness that were the mussels, and then the shrimp.

The subtle flavor of the rice was comforting and made a fitting backdrop for the seafood. The thick al dente grains covered in the black ink showed just a hint of saffron orange. The calamari was stirred into the rice for a nice bit of texture. I was amazed that this dish had no fishiness to it — even with the generous loading of seafood. The “fish” was so fresh, I could easily have been eating this dish seaside in Spain.

Sun Singer Restaurant, Wine & Spirits
1115 W Windsor Rd
Champaign
M-F 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Tias Paul.