Chicago steakhouse Maple & Ash is a palace of protein, to be sure, and nothing’s more regal than their roasted shellfish tower. Roasted instead of chilled, you might ask? What kind of place is this? “It’s just about the nicest thing you could put on a holiday table to blow everyone’s minds,” says executive chef Danny Grant. While the preparation might be unconventional, Grant says it’s one of the most popular seafood dishes that comes off the kitchen’s 12-foot open hearth.
“I’m my harshest critic when it comes to the restaurant. And I can honestly say I love and look forward to coming in and ordering a giant seafood tower and a beautiful bottle of white Burgundy. It makes you feel like royalty,” he adds.
We inquired as to how one might recreate this regal scene for a special occasion gathering at home, and Grant’s got us covered. He knows exactly how hypnotizing that photo is.
Why might you want to want to go with roasted shellfish versus raw or poached?
We do serve some chilled seafood, which is delicious, but there’s something to be said about really beautiful seafood roasted over a fire. The natural salt from the ocean does the rest of the seasoning for us. I was inspired in Barcelona where they do something similar, just fire-roasted shellfish and some wild turbot. You roll your sleeves up and go in.
Which do you think is more aesthetically pleasing?
My opinion would be roasted. Especially this time of year, maybe on the beach a chilled platter is nice but for us it gives a sense of warmth and holiday.
How do you want to garnish a roasted platter that’s different from a raw platter?
Garlic butter, chili oil, freshly chopped parsley and a big squeeze of lemon juice is all it really needs. When you’re working with beautiful ingredients, the simpler the better.
How long have you had the roasted tower on the menu?
Since day one. One of the things that brings it over the top — and another reason I personally prefer roasted over chilled — is when you’re cooking these beautiful ingredients, the clams, oysters, they all release their own liquor. Then in the bottom of the pan are all these juices. My initial idea was to put a straw in it and drink it. One night I was in the wine cellar with our sommelier after we finished a tower saying “We can’t let these juices go to waste!” So I made some fresh pasta, and we invented the “pasta back.” When you’re almost done eating the tower at the table, we come and dump a little conchiglie in the tray — shells in shellfish. We stir it around and it absorbs all these amazing juices and then you have a whole other pasta dish. People lose their minds. It’s a surprise for afterwards, the pasta back. That’s not on the menu.
That sounds like an exceptionally delicious way to repurpose something that would have been waste. What are some other ways you’re battling food waste in the kitchen?
We have a sous-chef meeting every week and we’re constantly figuring out ways to utilize every single scrap. Whether it’s a scrap of meat we grind, age and put into a meatball or a vegetable that we find and put into a sauce, we’re utilizing every single thing. One of the things we do as at Maple & Ash is “the swarm.” As soon as you sit down, you’re greeted with a tiny seasonal martini and a bunch of little snacks. Why? First off, when someone comes to my house, I don’t let them sit there with nothing on the table. The swarm is a great way to use what we have leftover. The belly of a salmon, for example, is not really great on the plate. So we take it, season it, poach it and we flake that, and that becomes a salmon rillette that we serve during swarm.
As far as photographing the tower goes, it’s almost unfair, right? Were you there for the photography?
It’s very photogenic. The beauty of shooting this dish is the abundance, looking bountiful. I also really like looking at all the different colors of the crabs, scallops, clams, it really is very photogenic. It makes you drool a little bit.
What are some tips for digging into this kind of tower in a clean-ish way?
Prepare the shellfish in a way that it’s easy to get it out of the shell. We cut the shells off the shrimp and the crab so there’s only a little shell left. That way, you can pull it out with a fork.
What would you recommend as a main course having demolished one of these as a starter?
A 28-day dry-aged ribeye with ricotta agnolotti. The steak is magical, the pasta is just pillows of love.