I know I wrote two weeks ago that Takashi Yagihashi's Slurping Turtle won the izakaya/yakitori style war, a trend that's quickly becoming as tired and oversaturated as cupcake burgers. But that was before I visited Yusho, from former Charlie Trotter's chef de cuisine Matthias Merges, a dim, narrow, bustling spot in Avondale, a neighborhood that can actually use something along these lines.
Merges, a 14-year veteran of Trotter's rigorous Lincoln Park kitchen incubator, has joined the swollen ranks of fine-dining chefs who've stepped into more economically accessible arenas. For backup he's brought in a power duo, namely his former sous chef Jennifer Petrusky (who also put in time at GT Fish & Oyster) and, to command the beverage program, onetime Trotter's assistant sommelier Alex Bachman, a name I'm confident you'll be hearing a lot in the coming year.
But more about him later. This is Merges's show, and he stands in front of the tiny open kitchen expediting and eagle eyeing every piece of meat on the gas and charcoal grills, offering direction to the line cooks or the occasional thumbs-up for Petrusky's platings. It's impossible to overstate how the primal act of applying direct flame to all manner of foods caused the human brain to grow, but here the skewers are garnished and accented with a mostly Japanese palette of interesting exotica that recalls the same precise and audacious flavoring schemes that Trotter's became known for decades ago. That's in substance if not style; unfussy constructions rule, particularly with generously loaded skewers such as billowing ribbons of beef tongue dressed with Malaysian chile sauce, or thick blocks of glazed pork belly topped with kimchi and funky fermented black garlic, or sweetbreads with toasted soybeans and tart barbecue sauce made from Japanese dried plums. Nonanimal options are almost as meaty in their savoriness: a grilled leek formation is slathered with acidic miso and fried shallot, a plank of dense tofu is topped with chrysanthemum and pineapple.
Perhaps this doesn't say much, but these are the most thoughtfully constructed yakitori in town, with an attention to detail echoed in more carefully composed little plates like a devastating urchin dish, a pair of crispy fried uni-stuffed egg rolls draped with another clean piece of echinoderm gonad, its nautical foaminess offset by the complementary textures and flavors of pomegranate seeds and thin slivers of pickled Buddha's hand. Potted chicken liver is a pretty familiar thing around town these days, but Yusho's—with a sweet-and-sour layer of yuzu jelly on top and cigar-shaped sesame crackers to scoop it up—is an original. A salad of woody burdock root (aka gobo) is a pleasure to chew in the company of pomegranate and persimmon, the textural antithesis of an equally good (and sloppy) bowl of maitake mushrooms with a poached egg that disintegrates among the florid fungus and clear gelatinous cubes of dashi stock—only a crunchy tuft of frisee reminds you to chew.
That creamy, runny egg, a nod to David Chang's famous 5:10 slow-cooked chicken spawn, appears again in one of Yusho's larger offerings, a "Logan 'poser' ramen" accompanied by a breaded and mustard-drizzled deep- fried skewer of reconstituted pig tail meat, two fantastic bites that can't reconcile with their accompanying broth, which performs in the mouth like a viscid hot vegetable oil. A few other weakly executed items lowered the average: twice-fried chicken cutlets sprinkled with powdered green tea were fried far too hard to recall anything other than a school lunch patty, and a somewhat dry takoyaki, stuffed with duck confit instead of octopus and tossed with shimmering bonito flakes, suffered from too much time on the griddle.
There are a couple of sweets: a pair of mochi folded prettily around hazelnut and chocolate or citrusy kalamansi and peanut, and a large soft-serve sundae, vanilla the vehicle for a nicely bitter buckwheat caramel sauce and spicy crystallized ginger. But it's hard to imagine returning to them over all the savory snacks and the work of the ace in the hole—barman Bachman, who's personable, engaging, and has a deep knowledge of the arcana of his profession. His current menu makes precise use of his small workspace to riff on classics with obscure spirits and novel garnishes: tamarind bitters, grilled cloves, acid phosphates, sencha, frankincense tincture. His Three Arrows, with house-made fenugreek bitters and the bark-infused Barolo Chinato digestivo, makes one of the more challenging and delicious manhattans I've ever had. Plus, he's capable of playing dealer's choice with the best of them. Once Paul McGee leaves the Whistler, I'm predicting he'll emerge as the cocktail king of the neighborhood.
These drinks, along with a small selection of wine, sake, and beer, are the reason Yusho succeeds with this concept better than the competition: this is an audacious and committed beverage program that's complemented more by the snacks than the other way around. Yusho's the sort of place where the deceptively attractive prices might tempt you to order more than you can handle, if only to prolong your time at the bar.