Restaurant Tours: Japanese tradition with a French twist | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: Japanese tradition with a French twist 

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Jacques Barbier's Le Mikado has occupied the southeast corner of Goethe and Dearborn for the past two years. Barbier, whose La Boheme brought French provincial cuisine to Winnetka's Laundry Mall (in a converted laundry), changed his style of cooking when he came to the Gold Coast. Chef Daniel Kelch, whose mother is Japanese, was put in charge of the kitchen, and the result has been a highly successful fusion of French and Japanese ingredients and methods of preparation.

The decor hasn't changed much from when Bolton's occupied the space. The same comfortable arrangement of booths and well-spaced tables prevails, and the same dreary view of Dearborn from the room's west side. Dim recessed lights impart a shadowy warmth to pale gray walls; linen- topped tables are covered in butcher paper, and chopsticks nestle in napkins amid the usual tableware. A giant floral arrangement against the window, a spray of peacock feathers and dried grass in a heavy wrought-iron vase set into a niche, and here and there a rice-paper panel complete the understated interior. Hot towels welcome the diner as soon as she or he is seated.

Beginning in May and continuing at least through June, Le Mikado will offer a kaiseki dinner, 11 mini-courses for $34.75--a bargain considering the quality of the food, and in comparison with, say, Tokyo, where $300 for a kaiseki dinner is not unknown. "Kaiseki," which is shortened from "kaiseki ryori," or "tea cooking," originated in Kyoto, evolving out of the tea ceremony--it's a light prelude to the ceremony itself. According to Kaichi Tsuji, a prominent kaiseki chef in Kyoto and Tokyo, "The quantity of food served should be roughly 80 percent of what a man can comfortably eat." He does not mean a Sumo wrestler either, but the average person--despite its many courses, a kaiseki dinner is deliberately light.

What is served in the traditional kaiseki dinner depends upon the season, the marketplace, and the time of day. Generally it begins with a bowl of rice and includes some form of raw fish, but at Le Mikado all of the fish is cooked, and the only starch you'll find is in the form of noodles--wheat, bean-thread, and wonton strips. On the other hand, chef Kelch upholds the spirit of kaiseki by presenting each course in crockery that visually complements the food. In Japan, diners are expected to finish each serving so that they can admire the dishes.

For an additional $10 per person, diners can sample three sakes, the first chilled, the second at room temperature, the third warmed. Or they can opt for just one sake, at around $4 a serving. We tried Suishi, served country-style in a small square wooden box at room temperature. Fruity, slightly sweet, and mildly acrid, it proved a challenging introduction to the meal--the nearly half-inch-thick walls of the box made sipping difficult, though fortunately not impossible.

First among the edibles was gomae, a tiny mound of spinach in a mirin, soy, and sake sauce, dotted with white and black sesame seeds and topped by wisps of carrot and daikon. The intensely sweet-tart and herb- astringent spinach made a fitting overture.

Poached leek in umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) appeared next, garnished with a single small Alaskan shrimp and an equally diminutive mound of seaweed, on a background of white porcelain decorated with thin blue lines like wheel spokes. Though visually appealing, the dish was more tantalizing than gratifying, its tangy plum sauce overly intense, the leeks tough and too long to be chopstick- friendly. Close on its heels, and delightful in their audacity, were two sea snails flamed in the shell on a bed of coarse salt. One waits for the flames to die down and then uses a colorful toothpick to prise from its fortress each surprisingly meaty morsel, smoky, pungent, and chewy.

Then a covered lacquer box appeared, its body alternating bands of cream and orange; it contained a dense white mist that cleared to reveal a little glass dish of oysters in ponzu sauce, seemingly afloat on dry ice. Sea-flavored and utterly fresh, the mollusks were topped by trout caviar and more strips of carrot and daikon. Next our waitress delivered a small earthenware casserole of Manila clams in a sweet, fiery garlic-and- chili-infused broth, a rich and satisfying dish marred only by occasional bits of shell.

The sixth course consisted of two fried shrimp, one coated in coconut and the other in green cracker crumbs, each attended by a tiny deep-fried crab, a tangle of bean-thread noodles, and a small bowl of sesame mayonnaise. Eating the crabs is like biting into briny potato chips. The mayonnaise seemed out of keeping and intrusive, however, with its alien, westernized creaminess.

Duck--tender, pink, and juicy--arrived in an aromatic broth of wheat noodles, carrot, shiitake mushrooms, and cabbage into which a hot rock had been dropped to complete the cooking. After that came catfish fillet, utterly sweet and fresh in its delicate golden crust, garnished with asparagus spears and enlivened by a lightly pungent sauce of black beans and scallions. Ending the parade of entrees was succulent roast quail sparked by tangy plum sauce and surrounded by beet slices, roasted eggplant, broccoli florets, and deep- fried carrot slivers.

Fresh plum and orange slices in Midori liqueur, crowned by crispy threads of fried wonton, made a fitting coda to a skillfully orchestrated meal. The culmination of the kaiseki ryori is "matcha," powdered green tea whipped to a froth by the tea master, but here it was something of an anticlimax, prepared hurriedly and its complicated aesthetic left to the diner's imagination.

Those daunted by the prospect of 11 courses, however small, may choose from the regular a la carte menu or an excellent prix fixe menu that offers three courses for $16.75. The latter allows one to select from four appetizers; four entrees, including London broil and whole brook trout; and a half-dozen or so desserts. We favor such openers from the regular menu as salmon cakes with chili aioli ($5.50), sweet and flaky salmon given a ferocious boost by chili-garlic mayonnaise and zesty, if overly salty, pickled celery root. Tuna carpaccio ($7.75), served here as a thin slab awash in citrus-ponzu sauce and flanked by pink ginger and gelatinous seaweed, was among the best we've had outside of Hawaii. Not far behind are gyoza ($5.00), plump, sausage-filled dumplings, sharing a plate with unctuous shiitake mushrooms in savory oyster sauce.

Whole catfish ($13.75) makes a memorable entree, the fish ably seconded by tempura-fried sweet potato, onion, squash, and string beans. Sweet preserved red ginger garnishes the fish, and a piquant orange-cilantro vinaigrette gives it oomph. Duck breast stuffed with Chinese sausage and pistachios ($14.75), on the other hand, brought us to the verge of sensory overload. Fortunately bland rice and peas provided a foil to its mildly pungent, rich, meaty exuberance--it was topped with fried noodles, accompanied by broccoli and asparagus, and nearly blanketed by wild mushrooms.

We tried four desserts, and can recommend them all. White-and-bittersweet-chocolate terrine ($4.75) on coffee-scented milk-chocolate sauce wins hands down, but creme brulee ($4.75), all silken egginess under a crackly glaze of burnt sugar, places handily. Flourless chocolate cake ($4.75) is a bone-dry confection set against a cloud of unsweetened whipped cream on a swirl of red and green creme anglaise. Confirmed chocoholics should make a beeline for the voluptuous dark-chocolate ice cream sundae ($4.75), unnecessarily accompanied by mint syrup and commercial cookies. Robust, smoky-rich coffee and terrific espresso complement the sweets or go it alone nicely at the end.

Wines begin at $18 and hover between $25 and $35. Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, Chateau Mont-Redon 1987 ($28) is dry and full-flavored with citrus, apple, and herbaceous overtones; it goes beautifully with poultry and fish. Friendly, eager service adds to a general sense of comfort and well-being.

Le Mikado, 21 W. Goethe, is open Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11, and Sunday from 5 to 9. All major credit cards are accepted. Reduced-rate parking is available in the lot across the street, and there's valet service on Saturdays. For reservations call 280-8611.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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