Restaurants: More Than Maki, October 9, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: More Than Maki, October 9, 2008 

Japanese, from sushi to shabu-shabu

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More Than MakiJapanese, from sushi to shabu-shabu

Chiyo3800 W. Lawrence | 773-267-1555

$$Japanese | Dinner: Sunday, tuesday-saturday | Closed monday | Open late: tuesday-saturday till 11

I guess Chicago wasn't ready for an all-kaiseki restaurant. Elaborate multicourse dining based on simple, pure ingredients chosen to philosophically coincide with the changing seasons was an ambitious idea for this town, and the meal I ate at Matsumoto, Isao Tozuka and chef Seijiro Matsumoto's Albany Park restaurant, was one of my most memorable. But despite intense media interest the place never seemed to be occupied by more than a few diners at a time. The doors closed, and the restaurant reopened as Chiyo, sans the great Matsumo, a man licensed to prepare fugu in five cities. Kaiseki is still available (it must be ordered four to five days in advance), but now Tozuka and his charming wife, Chiyo, focus on more conventional Japanese fare including teriyaki, sukiyaki, and shabu-shabu with a choice of prime or Wagyu beef airfreighted from Japan. The last two are showy performances in their own right, and Chiyo is still a restaurant where one can sample the uncommon, like ankimo, or monkfish liver, otherwise known as the foie gras of the sea. The sake list is impressive, and the standard array of sushi and sashimi items is available, prepared with skill, though somehow lacking the pristine freshness that Matsumoto delivered. As far as customers go his departure's made little difference—the place is as forlorn as ever. —Mike Sula

Katsu2651 W. Peterson | 773-784-3383

F 8.7 | S 7.1 | A 7.1 | $$$ (7 reports)Asian, Japanese | Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday

rrr Long before the tsunami of overpriced, overdesigned sushi bars struck West Town, Katsu Imamura was quietly and unpretentiously elevating sea creatures to their edible ideal in less fashionable West Rogers Park. No Prada-toting poseurs cram this pair of narrow dining rooms, but Imamura and his wife, Haruko, have earned the loyalty of traveling Japanese businessmen and discerning locals with their friendly attention and superb high-quality fish. The best approach is to place your fate in Imamura's artist's hands and allow him to craft a sashimi combination of his choice. Long slabs of that day's most beautiful fish drape over each end of the rice, accented with fresh minty shiso leaf, tiny mounds of caviar, and flecks of gold leaf. Nigiri is generously portioned; Imamura says that while most sushi chefs use their four fingers as a measurement, he sizes it against his four fingers splayed. That's just one way in which Katsu, despite prices that can be steep (special sushi combos range from $32 to $38, and a multicourse special chef's menu is $100 and up with advance reservations), surpasses the still more exorbitant see-and-be-seen scenes. Don't overlook the cooked dishes and specials, which make the most out of the rare and seasonal: a grilled yellowtail jaw, amazingly moist and tender, is armored with crispy caramelized bits. Nuggets of lightly fried flounder fillet crown the fish's equally delicious, delicate, extra-crispy skeleton. A saucer of raw quail's egg atop a pile of shredded daikon, green onion, and wasabi is meant to be mixed into a cup of cold tea and used as a dip for green-tea buckwheat noodles. Even simple dishes like thin grilled slices of beef tongue or a tender sectioned squid come off like they were born, raised, and sacrificed just for you. —Mike Sula

Mitsuwa Marketplace100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights | 847-956-6699

$

Asian, Japanese, Noodles | 9 Am-8 PM seven days

A visit to Mitsuwa Marketplace provides the sort of sensory overload and culture shock untraveled Occidentals have been trained to expect from the frenzy of modern Japan. The local branch of this Japanese superstore houses a cosmetic counter, bookstore, china shop, travel agent, bakery, and a liquor store with an addling array of sakes. You can spend hours wandering the wide aisles of the spotless supermarket, eyes glazing over at the rows of mysterious products in brightly colored packages. The fish department is an excellent source for unusual species and sashimi-grade seafood, and the produce section yields consistently fresh (and often pricey) fruits and vegetables with some really uncommon finds—-it's the only place I know where you'll (occasionally) see fresh wasabi root. The food court presents a singular opportunity to experience the varieties of Japanese fast food locally. The sushi counter, with its plethora of prepackaged rolls, reflects the populist origins of raw fish and rice as fast food for travelers rather than the rarefied restaurant meal we've come to pay dearly for. At the curry stall, Otafuku-tei, thick gravy chunky with carrots and potatoes is ladled over rice and accompanied by fried eggs, panko-breaded pork chops, or ground meat patties—a dish that results in such an intense MSG high I'd recommend assigning a designated driver. Next door, Kayaba specializes in bowls of udon and soba noodles; another stand, Santoka Ramen, serves the long tentacular noodles in salt-, soy-, or miso-flavored broths. The choices can be baffling, so each stall helpfully displays shiny plastic but not unappetizing models of each dish. —Mike Sula

Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi111 N. State | 312-781-2939

$asian, japanese | Lunch: seven days

Every detail down to the last filament of nori seems premeditated at Takashi Yagihashi's fancified food-court noodle shop, located on the seventh floor of Macy's on State. Line cooks pump out homey bowls of ramen and giant mounds of fried rice to the masses, but last-second sprinklings of seaweed, ginger, and fried parsnip make the process seem more civilized. Yagihashi's design background manifests itself in the finer details—black wooden trays and hooked soup spoons elevate mall dining to new heights. Service seems well-oiled; someone may even come out to your table to offer you more of the fantastic iced tea or just to ask how things are. Ramen comes in three flavors: miso, shoyu, and shio; the last, a hybrid of the other two, benefits from the ferment of the miso and the subtle richness of the shoyu. Ground pork and toothsome vegetables get mixed in with the standard ramen noodle. House-made tofu, tired fried dumplings, crispy spring rolls, and steamed buns stuffed with smoky braised pork round out the delightfully brief menu. There may be better ramen in the city, but it's unlikely you'll find better eating in a food court. —Kristina Meyer

Renga-Tei3956 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood | 847-675-5177

$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday, Wednesday- Friday; Dinner: Sunday,-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

Though some find Renga-Tei lacking in atmosphere, I thought the rooms were nicely appointed, with a clean, Japanese sense of design. The menu includes items not seen in most Japanese restaurants: sanma (mackerel pike), unusual noodle-dish ingredients like salmon roe, and even Calpico (the yogurt drink). Don't miss the dinner sets that are on the specials board as you enter the restaurant; they include side dishes like gomae (spinach with sesame dressing), sunomono (cucumber salad), and hiya yakko (a chilled tofu dish) along with a main entree. The miso soup is wonderful. Though not quite on par with Katsu, Renga-Tei is excellent for the money. —Keith Masumoto, Rater

Sai Cafe2010 N. Sheffield | 773-472-8080

$$Asian, Japanese | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-Thursday till 11

The fish served at Sai Cafe is so uniformly good that it's hard to misstep. Pieces of sushi are lavishly cut, and even the fishiest fish—mackerel, for example—is firm and fresh. The lengthy menu includes all the sushi standards as well as specialties such as rainbow maki—salmon, tuna, yellowtail, white tuna, and avocado wrapped around a core of crab stick—and a startling soft-shell crab maki complete with a jumble of deep-fried claws jutting out of the center. The menu offers many hot entrees, but most customers are interested only in the sushi. The restaurant's three rooms are appealing and unpretentious, as are the mismatched serving trays. —Martha Bayne

Shochu3313 N. Clark | 773-348-3313

$$Bar/Lounge, Japanese, Small Plates | Dinner: sunday, tuesday-saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3; Friday till 2; sunday, tuesday-thursday till midnight

A loungey, modern restaurant, Shochu boasts a heavily Asian-influenced menu by Josh Hansen of Deleece but is really about its namesake booze, a distilled spirit that in recent years has overtaken sales of sake in Japan. On offer are almost 20 varieties, all served neat or on the rocks at $5 to $12 a glass or in cocktails like the Shione (barley), whose generous dollop of muddled blackberries kept me from knocking it straight back. The drinks are a far cry from the staple "sours"—shochu, ice, and soda served with half a citrus fruit, a molded juicer, and a swizzle stick—on the menu at standard Japanese izakaya (casual bars that offer bites of everything from sashimi to french fries), but Shochu's service style is more or less the same. The dishes are small and varied (curry, maki, yakitori, and "raw"), meant for sharing and to be ordered as the mood (or the alcohol) strikes. We tried a small mound of chopped ono, avocado, scallion, and chile on a rice-paper bed; it looked doused in peanut sauce (hints of Thailand) but to my relief had the refreshing citrus taste of ceviche (viva Mexico?). The grilled skewers came three to a plate with seven dips and a salt for dipping. The shrimp and pear, the bacon-wrapped dates, and the shiitake, tomato, and onion all lacked the nice smoky flavor lent by a good charcoal, but the avocado-wasabi mayo spared the shrimp from just OK-dom, the "Japanese ranch" revived the dates, and the salt saved the day. Which is to say that about half of everything—though essentially good—was too intensely flavored, most often overly sweet. Next time I'll take a glass of the Shiranami, neat. —Irma Nuñez

Sunshine Cafe5449 N. Clark | 773-334-6214

F 7.6 | S 8.2 | A 5.6 | $ (9 reports)Asian, Japanese | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Noodle dishes—from nutty buckwheat soba to chewy wheat udon—dominate the menu at this home-style Japanese restaurant. Most come swimming in large bowls of broth with generous servings of vegetables or meat. A brief selection of equally impressive main courses includes sukiyaki, shrimp tempura, and a pleasantly sweet chicken teriyaki. Prices are rock-bottom—one Rater calls it "one of the best bang-for-your-buck places in Chicago." Says another: "Sunshine Cafe is one of those places that you hesitate to recommend because you are afraid to blow its cover!" —Laura Levy Shatkin

Sushi X1136 W. Chicago | 312-491-9232

$Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

Housed in a windowless concrete building kitty-corner from the Chicago Avenue Blue Line stop, Sushi X is a surprisingly successful example of restaurant minimalism, goth variety. Run by the folks behind Randolph Street's Sushi Wabi, the raw space features about a dozen tables and is decorated mainly by candles and billowing gauze curtains, with anime and vintage films projected against one white wall. The menu features about three dozen maki, ranging from basics like hamachi and smoked salmon to fanciful overstuffed creations like the Red Dragon, a rich and spicy combination of shrimp tempura, sriracha, jalapeño, mayo, roe, spicy tuna, and eel sauce. There's no nigiri or sashimi, and no liquor license either, but a few hot dishes—panko-crusted chicken, veggie tempura—round out the sushi offerings. Sushi-X also does a booming takeout and delivery business, serving an area bounded by Congress, North, Western, and Lake Michigan. —Martha Bayne

Tampopo5665 N. Lincoln | 773-561-2277

$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

Daniel Choe named his place after Juzo Itami's noodle western, whose eponymous heroine is named for the Japanese word for dandelion. Like that woman's ramen shop, Choe's restaurant is bright and earnest; unlike her, he offers more than just three different kinds of noodles—there are 14 types of ramen, udon, and soba, plus donburi, bento boxes, sushi, and nearly two pages of traditional Japanese appetizers and entrees on the menu. Choe has a deft touch with the deep fryer, rendering delicate items like panko-fried oysters and halibut tempura light and greaseless. He handles artistic presentations—like an startling whole squid, sliced then reassembled, that looks capable of wrestling down a submarine, or steamed shrimp dumplings in wasabi-infused wrappers—just as easily as home-style dishes like good ol' sukiyaki, or agedashi tofu, fried bean curd with ginger in a minced radish sauce with tiny mushroom and soybeans. —Mike Sula

Tank Sushi4514 N. Lincoln | 773-769-2600

F 8.6 | S 7.7 | A 7.0 | $$$ (24 reports)asian, Japanese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

rrr Tank's formula—sleek contemporary space, clubby background music, signature cocktails—has been done before. But it still feels welcoming and casual enough for the neighborhood folkies and hippiesters. Many of the sushi combinations show a global influence: the Latin Heat (superwhite tuna and smoked salmon with avocado) sports cilantro and a healthy slice of jalapeño. We loved the Ocean Sundae roll (shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado, and an embarrassment of sauces, mayos, and other adornments), with its combination of sweet and spicy flavors and creamy and crunchy textures. The maki menu also features meat options and an unusual number of vegetarian rolls including kampyo, marinated gourd with sesame seeds, and a shiitake roll with sweet ginger soy and sesame seeds. —Kathie Bergquist

Toro Sushi2546 N. Clark | 773-348-4877

$$Japanese | Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

When sushi chef Mitch yells "Irasshaimase!" as you enter his tiny, spare space, he seems to really mean it—whatever he's saying—and you feel instantly welcome and at home. While Mitch tends the sushi bar, his wife, Jenny, coordinates the rest of the service all by herself, so when it's busy, service tends to be slow and apologetic. Sushi Toro separates itself from the ever growing sushoid pack by offering better fish for little money, and while I can't say it's Heat- or Japonais-quality fish, how could it be at these prices? Ordering smaller quantities for daily delivery helps to keep things fresh, and Mitch refuses to buy items like uni or toro when out of season just for the sake of keeping them on the menu. Nigiri sushi is of the slab school, where fish is cut thick and slightly oversize, then draped over the rice. Maki range from the modest negi hamachi (yellowtail and scallions) to the aptly named "Oh My God!" roll, whose roster of ingredients would take me over my word limit. For something different, there are house specials like deep-fried stuffed shiitake mushrooms and spicy grilled mussels; Korean bulgogi and kalbi are also on offer. This little parlor is BYO, making it even more desirable. —Kristina Meyer

Tsuki1441 W. Fullerton | 773-883-8722

F 8.2 | S 8.0 | A 8.3 | $$ (7 reports)Asian, Japanese | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight

If this 6,000-square-foot triple storefront is any indication, Chicago's sushi mania hasn't subsided. The space, owned and run by A-One Food Service caterers (suppliers for Whole Foods Market) and siblings Eugene Chua and Agnes Yoshikawa (owners of Ringo), has three rooms (one reserved for late-night clubbers) and a large outdoor lot for al fresco dining. Tiny halogen lights on the gray stucco ceiling look like twinkling stars, and dark blue silk covers the booths around the room's perimeter. The elaborate menu features not just sushi and impressive and delicate maki but also a selection of hot dishes like gindara mushi (steamed shrimp and black cod wrapped in lettuce and drizzled with a zesty yuzu sauce). The lounge, which serves a limited sushi menu, is open till 2 AM on Friday and Saturday, 1 AM Monday through Thursday. A delivery menu is available online at tsuki.us. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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