A Walleye's Eyes

Tavern on Grand
656 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 228-9030
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, food served until 11 p.m.; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, food served until midnight; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, food until midnight; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday, food until 11 p.m.

After a million walleyes on a million plates in a million joints, after walleye in baskets, walleye on sticks, walleye in sandwiches, and walleye in black bean sauce, there comes a time in every non-angler's life when she must take a good look around and ask: What the heck is walleye, anyway?

Well, let me tell you: Walleye is no dumb bunny. It's a top predator, a sneaky hunter that feasts on little fishes; it's practically a freshwater shark. It has glassy eyes with reflective membranes behind the retina that allow it to see in the dark; if you shine a light at them, a walleye's eyes will glow like a cat's. Because of this, some call the walleye "old nobble eye." British slang for drugged was, once, "nobbled." Old schnockered-eye. Lucy in the Sky With Walleye Eyes.

Walleyes are big, bug-eyed fish. The record is 25 pounds, and I've seen pictures--even a 20-pound walleye is bigger than your average toddler. Some call them walleyed pike, even though they're technically perch. According to the North American Fishing Club's Walleye Tactics, Tips, and Tales, they're also called, in different parts of the country, jack salmon, dore, pike-perch, yellowpike, jack glasseye, gum pike, Susquehanna salmon, bugeye, pickerel, yellow pickerel, and marble eye. (Appropriately enough for Minnesota, the best-known name comes from the Icelandic vagleygr, which means "film eyes.")

Walleyes are smart: They like to drive a school of small prey fish, like smelt or shad, against a ledge and eat them as they bounce off the wall. They like to get under a group of little fish being attacked by another predator, like a pike, and catch the wounded as they drop down like falling leaves.

Interestingly, they are very particular when it comes to their marital duties. They particularly like to spawn near gravelly, windswept shores--though they'll do it in the weeds if they must, like some people who will remain nameless. Why rocky shores? There, the eggs can drop into crevices between the gravel, where they are protected from predators; wind keeps sediment in the water from suffocating the eggs. Moreover, walleyes thrive in places with long winters, where shore ice forces them to delay spawning until late spring: By the time the baby fish are hatched, other creatures have begun to develop, and the newborns, known as fry, can eat.

Long winters. Rocky, windswept lake and river shores. Ring any bells?

With walleye comes walleye culture. Log cabins. Loons. Plaid flannels. Pine and birch. Tavern on Grand pays them all their due: Trompe-l'oeil painting makes the walls look as if they were made of logs. Slats frame north-woods scenes--a crane flying into a gold-and-periwinkle sunset, a full moon over a pine-ringed lake, a mossy, frothy waterfall--are they meant as windows or paintings? I prefer windows. And what's that on that dimly lit shore? Are they...no. Couldn't be.

But these are walleye in front of you. Walleye nuggets in appetizer baskets ($6.95). Walleye in sandwiches ($7.95). Walleye in shore lunches ($8.50). Walleye in one-fillet ($12.95) and two-fillet ($16.95) dinners. Walleye in "Lakeshore Specials," with sirloin steak ($16.95). Flaky, ivory-fleshed walleye. Maybe it's their cold-water, sushi-fed life that makes walleye so sweet and tender, but I'm betting it's just luck that makes them so easily boned. (The closest North American relative of the walleye, the sauger, is full of tiny needle bones, which are a devil to get out.)

The Tavern's culinary style is classic, understated north woods. In all dishes but the appetizer, you can choose to have your fish fried or broiled. Fried fillets, breaded with a simple seasoned flour, emerge sand-colored, crisp as sticks, delicate as cake in the centers. Grilled ones are cooked modestly with lemon pepper and a bit of paprika. The boneless, bite-sized walleye chunks in the appetizer basket are addictive--sweet, tender tokens of the chilly Canadian lake that supplies all of the Tavern's walleye.

Freshly steamed vegetables in an oil-based dressing and your choice of potato come with all the walleye dishes except the appetizer and sandwich. Fries are those pre-seasoned, breaded ones; steamed new potatoes are just that, unadorned, perfect with salt, pepper, a little butter. Big, fluffy, church-basement rolls and foil-wrapped butter pats come with the dinners and shore lunch. Next time I have to entertain some out-of-towner looking for proof of Lake Wobegon, I'll bring them here.

The Tavern also sells burgers ($4.75 to $5.75), barbecue, soups, salads, jalapeño poppers ($4.95), and all the other things neighborhood bars sell, though I didn't find anything besides the walleye I'd endeavor to order again. What I like best about the place is the only-in-Minnesota atmosphere, the cheery, unself-conscious hubbub, and that instant north-woods-vacation feeling--every time I've been there, one of my party has, without prompting, brought up camping, park stickers, road trips, and such. Like a lake cabin, the Tavern has a rotating shelf of dog-eared paperbacks for communal enjoyment. Like a cabin, it's an all-age adventure: Once I saw a baby, in a snowsuit, in his car seat on the bar. Was he lulled to sleep by the Leinenkugel waterfall streaming from the taps? Or was he toothlessly dreaming of future walleye? Or was he just plain tired out with winter, like a fish whose lake's ice lid is about to thaw?

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