Here's last week's Four Stars restaurant review -- and watch for the Four Stars Feedback column in print Tuesday and online shortly thereafter -- plenty more tips on great batter-fried fish, plus some recommendations on the next Four Stars review:
There's fish everywhere on Fridays during the Christian holy days, from the corner bar and grill to the Catholic church down the block and the community club across town. Every restaurant has a Friday fish special, and even Culver's gets into the act with a credible walleye dinner during Lent.
So, listening to my better angels, I've been eating batter-fried fish all over Southeast Minnesota for the past month, and I'm here to report there's a lot of respectable fish out there, but not everybody knows how to batter-fry it. There's an art to mixing a light, crispy batter and making it stick to a fillet of good fish without it turning to greasy mush.
One of the best church feeds is at Christ the King Catholic Church in Byron, which serves several hundred fillets on Fridays during Lent. The Eagles Club in Rochester has a famous Friday fish fry with gigantic pieces of cod in a crunchy batter. But for outstanding batter-fried fish any day of the week, the best of the secular institutions I tried was Tilly's, the popular roadside bar and grill just south of Lake Shady.
Tilly's, along with Daniel's in Kasson and two Rochester favorites, Saints on Second and Beetle's Bar & Grill, win our Four Stars recommendations this month. All have a great batter-fried dinner with top-quality fish, and Tilly's (named for the owner's grandma, whose pic is on the sign) is among the best values around.
Bruce Born, the 42-year-old maestro of Tilly's since October, says the secret is top-quality Icelandic cod and lots of beer.
"We start with premium-quality North Atlantic cold-water cod — the colder the water, the better the fish," says Bruce, who previously was general manager at the 331 Bar and Grill near Rochester International Airport. Then comes the batter, made with a gallon of sudsy Budweiser, which adds only a hint of flavor but makes it crispier coming out of the fryer, he says.
Tilly's, which previously was the Oronoco municipal liquor store, will mark its 10-year anniversary in May, and though the redesign of U.S. 52 around Lake Shady makes it tough to get at, it's worth the round-about trip at the 100th Street/County Road 12 exit. "We offer small-town hospitality just five minutes north of Rochester," Bruce says. "It's a very warm, intimate place with good food and good friends."
When it comes to batter-fried fish, Tilly's and these other Four Stars winners have me hooked.
Here's what we were angling for:
Firm, flaky, flavorful fish: I give lots of extra points for walleye, but cod will do in a pinch. Among the many places we tried this month, we landed the biggest lunker at the Canadian Honker in Rochester — a truly trophy-sized piece of walleye. The Honker was featured in the very first Four Stars review last year, when I listed the best walleye sandwiches in town; otherwise I might have included them on this list.
Batter up!: Some of the batters were greasy, gooey inside or there was just too much of it — in one prominent local pub, the batter had all three strikes against it. The batter should be light, crispy, flavorful and not greasy, letting the fish shine through.
Can you really taste the beer?: Honestly, no, but it's the thought that counts, much as just a whiff of vermouth is the perfect amount for a classic martini.
Served every day, not just on Fridays during Lent: I love church-basement fish frys — one of the best is at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church near Durand, Wis. — but to earn our Four Stars, the batter-fried fish has to be on the menu every day.
The Leinie Lodge factor: Beer-battered fish is best enjoyed in a lakeside tavern, pub or grill, not a fancy dining room. The Hubbell House in Mantorville has a great walleye dinner, and for broiled walleye, I'd always go to Michaels in downtown Rochester, but this month's fare is more down-scale and down-home.
Agree or disagree with my picks? Send a note and I'll add it to the Four Stars Feedback column a week from today. That's your chance to pass along more tips on the best fried fish in the area. I'll note here that honorable mentions go to the Elba House in Altura, the Branding Iron in Preston, Slippery's in Wabasha, the Bear's Den in Byron, and Glynner's and McGoon's Taxi Co. in Rochester.
The winners of our Four Stars recommendations get a certificate extremely suitable for framing and a firm handshake from yours truly.
Next up: My doctor says I need to eat healthier after a month of fried food, so my wife and I will go on a low-cal, low-cholesterol search for the best leafy-green salad in Rochester area restaurants. Again, if you have a recommendation, send it and I'll check it out for the next Four Stars review on April 27.
Daniel's Restaurant and Northwoods Lounge
504 S. Mantorville Ave., Kasson
Daniel's is one of the best and brightest places to eat between Rochester and Owatonna — with its big windows, bright atmosphere, great service and diverse menu, it's the kind of hometown place you might stop for coffee in the morning, a piece of pie mid-afternoon and maybe a cocktail in the Northwoods Lounge on the way home. Their walleye fillet is a whopper, flaky and succulent, with a crispy, light batter. Though it's pricier than some at $15.95, the excellent salad bar and hash browns put it over the top. The cod fillet is two bucks less. Either way, wash it down with a pint of Schell's Firebrick beer.
Tilly's Bar and Grill
1155 Lake Shady Ave. S., Oronoco
I've driven past Tilly's maybe 1,500 times during my years in Rochester, and about half the time I've said to my wife, "We should stop." We didn't before last week and I wish we had — it's a fun, stylish roadhouse with a fireplace, granite bar, TVs tuned to sports, a patio for summer dining and a wide-ranging menu that includes surprises such as mussels and a Cajun shrimp boil. The cod is more flavorful and distinctive than most, and the batter is light as a feather. With a baker and homemade coleslaw, it's a great deal on Fridays for $8.99, a dollar more at other times.
Saints on Second Bar and Grill
161 13th Ave. S.W., Rochester
Someone needs to buy a decent sign for this restaurant — it's one of Rochester's best-kept culinary secrets. It's tucked inside the Marriott Courtyard hotel kitty-corner from Saint Marys Hospital and managed by executive chef Pat Reding, late of the popular Aviary restaurant. Go with a healthy appetite, because the portions are huge. The Canadian walleye fillet on my plate was curled and upright like it had just battled its way out of the water, and it tasted that fresh.
Beetle's Bar and Grill
230 20th Ave. S.W., Rochester
Seven blocks further west on Second Street Southwest, Beetle's has walleye that's just as good and a whisker cheaper at $13.95, though the green salad isn't up to Saints' standard. Add 50 cents and get the super sweet potato fries, which are thin, crisp and more salty than sweet. The Canadian fish is battered whisper-thin, served piping hot and looks appealing on the plate, unlike some fried fish we tried. Don't fill up on popcorn before the food arrives, though.