“The beautiful thing about seafood,” Mike Monahan says, “is that you can have a different meal every night of your life – and when you do get sick of something it goes out of season anyway.” Looking across the cases at Monahan’s Seafood Market, you can see what he’s talking about: whole fish, filets, dark-fleshed fish, light-fleshed fish, ocean fish, lake fish, shrimp, oysters, big scallops, little scallops (that are only in season for a few weeks), pickled herring, seafood sausage, crab… it’s a dazzling, and delicious array. And it’s better than the fish you’ll get in most other places due to Mike’s focus on quality: for example, they cut most of their own fish in house, which keeps fresher taste.
For over 30 years, Monahan’s has specialized not only in selling fish, but also in teaching people how to prepare it and providing what you might need to go with it. When Mike took over the market back in 1979 along with Paul Saginaw (yes, that Paul Saginaw), only 2 percent of the American diet was fish, and most people didn’t know how to cook it. Then, he focused on the groups who did eat a lot of fish, for example, learning how Japanese fish markets operated while stocking specialty ingredients not found elsewhere. Since Ann Arbor has always been a diverse place, down through the years he’s fulfilled the fish-related needs of people from different cultures – on one occasion, we saw an older French gentleman enjoying raw sea urchin on toast points, apparently a Brittany specialty. Now, mainstream Americans eat a lot more fish… but they don’t always have the time or knowledge to cook it themselves, so the market’s added a lot of ready-to-cook en papillote options, sauces, and recipes. And they cater; holiday parties are a big business.
They also now serve lunch. What started as occasional sales of cold seafood or chowder has blossomed, over the last five years and with the assistance of some talented chefs, into a full-on restaurant serving the best fish in town, albeit with only a few tables and some counter space. (Note well: this is still really a market. So call ahead to check feasibility if you’re coming in a group larger than 4, and don’t expect fancy side dishes. Just the best fish in town.)
Monahan’s has a selection of cold seafood delicacies, and they’ll do an assortment plate. Our plate included:
Matjes Herring from Iceland: Young immature herring, soaked in brine, a mild salty fish with a good firm texture. An instant favorite.
Smoked Bluefish: Gentle and subtle, even buttery, with a very clean flavor. (Try anything involving bluefish that you see at Monahan’s.)
Maine Smoked Mussels: Tender, with a rich smoky flavor from a combination of hardwood and fruitwood.
Creamed Herring: Firm chunks of wine-pickled herring, mixed with sour cream, giving a fresh tangy flavor.
Cajun Shrimp Salad: Medium-sized shrimp in a Cajun-spiced sauce.
Smoked Whitefish Sausage: Firm, smooth sausage; very fresh and mellow.
Smoked Trout Paté: Velvety smooth, clean flavor.
Monahan's lunch specials are a mix of regular staples and seasonal offerings, cooked fresh to order.
Here are some of the regularly available options:
Oyster Po’Boy: The deep fried oysters were tender, lightly coated, and served on a Café Japon baguette with remoulade sauce to add zip. You can also order a shrimp version of this sandwich, which is one of Joe’s
Beer Battered Fish & Chips: Monahan’s tasty version of the classic. Thick, crispy, batter-coated North Atlantic Pollack, served with herb and butter-tossed fries.
Fried Calamari: With just a light coating, these tender rings are served with a few green beans for color and contrast. The Thai peanut sauce is unexpected, but works really well.
In addition to the daily specials, they’ll cook anything from the case for you. Regulars know that the best way to have lunch there is to start by asking what’s in season or especially good. (By the way, December through February is Maine Shrimp season. They’ll be available by the time this review comes out, and they are not to be missed!)
Nantucket Scallops: If you're lucky, they may still have some of these tiny, sweet delicacies in December. We like them best simply seared with butter and lightly carmelized, which enhances their natural sweetness. The butter adds savory richness. Anything else is overkill. (OK, maybe a touch of lemon, if that's how you lean.)
Bluefish with Thai Sweet Chile Sauce: According to Mike, people who don’t like bluefish because they think it’s “too fishy” have probably had it at restaurants that ship it in pre-cut. At Monahan’s, it’s very freshly cut. Beautifully blackened, firm and tender, this strongly-flavored fish can stand up to intense spices. It’s a
Skate: Freshness, an important issue for all seafood, is an especially big deal with Skate (a type of ray), because when skate goes off it produces ammonia. Fresh skate is mild. It's a distinctive fish, with corrugated groves running across the wing and a cooked texture sort of like crab. We had ours pan-fried until golden and tender, with capers and lemon adding bright notes, served with a side of sautéed spinach with garlic, perfectly cooked.
Yellow Tail Snapper: They won’t do this when they’re super-busy, but there are few things better than a whole fish, deep-fried and served with Monahan's house-made San Remo butter. The fish is tender, the skin crispy, and the butter, with sundried tomatoes and herbs, adds delicious richness that makes this dish one to savor
One of the wonderful things about eating at Monahan's is that if there's something you love, you can buy the seafood and sauces and recreate the dish at home. And as you might guess, they’ll provide recipes or advice enthusiastically. Mike lives fish; an avid sport fisherman when he’s on vacation, he eats it 4-5 nights a week himself. And he never gets bored…
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.
Monahan’s Seafood Market
407 N 5th Ave
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Mon-Fri 8am-7pm (lunch served 11am-3pm)
Sat 7am-5pm (lunch served 11am-3pm)
Sun 10am-5pm (bagels, lox, and chowder all day but no other lunch)