One Bite: Alan Lake’s Donegal peat-smoked shrimp

By Mike Sula for Chicago Reader

Friend of the Food Chain chef Alan Lake took over the kitchen at Chief O’Neill’s back in December and has been gradually spiffing up what was previously decent but standard Irish pub grub. He’s been curing his own corned beef, frying chips in beef tallow, and serving dishes like Mint Creek lamb stew with Guinness-roasted barley and savory Irish Cashel blue cheesecake. It’s gone over pretty well for the most part, though one Yelper whinged, “This is a neighborhood Irish Pub, not NoMi or some swanky, danky restaurant serving mache or creme fraiche.” That makes Lake laugh.

One of the more unusual tricks up his sleeve was inspired by a wistful LTHer, who perhaps jokingly suggested he bake bread in a peat-burning oven. Peat, of course, is that matted half-rotted vegetation harvested for millennia from bogs and mires as a fuel source, which lends its distinctive vegetal smokiness to everything around it, most notably to the miracle of scotch.

A few months ago Lake got on the horn with a representative from the Irish Energy Bureau, who then hooked him up with a peat purveyor named, naturally, Sneaky Peat. Within two days he had a box full of various peat products, including chunks, pellets, and a liquid extract called “Instant Ireland.” I gave myself a squirt of the last, which prompted a certain photographer to observe, “You smell like a log.”

Lake’s been experimenting successfully with powdered peat on whitefish, potatoes, and moulard duck breast, but so far the only permanent smoked dish on the menu are his Donegal peat-smoked shrimp. He tosses a handful of the green stuff in a holding pan over high heat, and as the smoke billows up he places a rack of fat Pacific Mexican decapods in it, covers them seven minutes on the heat, then five more off. He plates with them with a carrot-fennel-orange salad, carrot-ginger emulsion, and basil oil. The result is a surprisingly summery dish, the peat lending an unmistakable but hardly Islay-strength smokiness to the shrimp, which maintain their snappy sweetness, unlike the sometimes mushy smoked shrimp at the otherwise great Calumet Fisheries (which gave him the idea). I promised I’d be writing about something green and Irish. This looks like the Irish flag.

The shrimp will be on the menu all week and beyond, but a particularly good time to give them a try will be Thursday, when the Chief hosts a fund-raiser for the Albany Park-based Asian Youth Services, an after-school mentoring program for underprivileged immigrant children, where Lake teaches percussion lessons (and which he’s written about here). The chef, who will be performing with his Brazilian trio Casa Del Soul, says the organization is in dire straights, so 25 percent of the night’s sales will go to the kids, who’ll also be performing ballet and percussion demos. They’re auctioning off a pair of tickets to the Bull-Knicks game too. Call for reservations:

Chief O’Neill’s, 3471 N. Elston, 773-583-3066