Crispy pig ear.
Izakayas suddenly came out of the woodwork this year, like everyone was issued the latest trends and this was near the top of the list. What’s an izakaya? It’s basically a kind of Japanese restaurant built around drinking foods. Or to put it in American restaurant-ese, it means small plates rather than entrees, along with your beer or whiskey. It’s the same appeal that had tapas restaurants popping up all over a couple of years ago— for the diner, you get the fun parts of dinner (meat, spicy stuff) in small portions that let you try a lot of things at fairly low prices per item; for the restaurant, you get to sell lots of little things alongside alcohol, and it’s entirely possible that lots of little things will result in a higher ticket than a few bigger things. Or at least higher margins, since the small stuff is often fairly cheap cuts.
One of the friends I dined with last night said New York has 30 of these places by now, but they’ve been slower to take root here. There’s some place downtown that has the name (Izakaya Hapa— is everyboda hapa?) but hasn’t seemed to impress anybody, and there was the short-lived Masu Izakaya, which seems to have picked too stodgy a part of Lincoln Park to open in and closed way too quickly. Now, accidentally riding a crest of sympathy for Masu dying too soon, comes Chizakaya, a little up the street on Lincoln in a very 70s building that used to house a Mexican wedding cake bakery.
Well, I’ve eaten tapas in Spain and though I liked a number of the places here that served what they called tapas, I thought they rarely rose above a metaphorical resemblance to anything I saw in Spain. I haven’t eaten at izakayas (or anything else) in Japan, but I did eat at one in Columbus, Ohio, a few months back, and before you laugh at that unlikely claim of authenticity, know that Columbus has a big Honda plant and a small subculture of fairly authentic Japanese places for Japanese businessmen visiting or working in the area. I can’t tell you how authentic to Japan Kihachi truly was, but it was certainly at the more authentic end of any Japanese dining experience I’ve had in the U.S., and I’m not the only one who was impressed by it.
And Chizakaya’s resemblance to anything I had at Kihachi is mainly metaphorical. If Chizakaya is authentic to anything, it’s the present gastropub trend with its emphasis on oddball meats, salty fatty things that make drinking that much easier; it’s an Asian-themed version of The Purple Pig or something, basically. And on that level, I had some very tasty things, greasy and easy to like. But I had something else in my head, a place where deep-fried lotus root or pickled plums or such unexpected, alien-looking things would challenge me during my meal. And I’m still kind of eager to go eat at that place, which isn’t what Chizakaya turned out to be.
That said, we were pretty happy with the first wave of stuff we ordered from the various parts of the menu (whose distinctions between different kinds of small plates, frankly, I can’t reconstruct the next morning). A skewer with beef cheek on it was terrific, tender, soul-filling beefiness; I liked the brightness of an octopus salad and some marinated vegetables and fruits, though the octopus was diced to the limits of my ability to manipulate chopsticks; there’s a small choice of sashimi and one of hamachi lightly touched with citrus and a little bit of intoxicatingly fatty bone marrow was really beautiful.
For that matter, the simplest thing of the night, little grilled turnips, was pretty wonderful too (and the closest, perhaps, to what I had in my head going in, The Japanese Delicate Touch With Vegetables I’d Rarely Eat Otherwise):
As one friend said about the crispy pig ears (shown at top), “It’s a potato chip that’s chewy,” and the vinegary sauce you were supposed to dip them in was too harsh. Another fish, marinated in kombu, overdid the citrus thing, and some clams in a beer broth seemed to have been sent over from the Hopleaf or something, they just seemed out of place and the broth was one-dimensional and harsh. I liked the delicate frying of the chicken thighs (with a BP-spill of mayo on the plate), but likewise couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that they belonged at a different restaurant, a bright cartoony Asian fast food place.
All in all, we were fairly happy at that point. What we weren’t, was full, and so we kept ordering, and our success average went steadily down as we dug into our second and third tier choices off the menu. The best were some gyoza stuffed with duck (and foie gras, supposedly, of which there was the tiniest livery hint). They were well made, well fried, well worth it. Beef tongue was tough and no comparison to the beef cheek, a chicken skin skewer was all right in a trashy, there’s nothing good for you here kind of way, but the tininess of the portions was really driven home here— yeah, at $3 I don’t expect much, but on the other hand, chicken skin, you’d be throwing that away if you couldn’t put it on a stick and grill it, there’s no reason to parcel it out like it’s jamon iberico. Pork belly was more generously portioned, but I’ve had a lot of pork belly by now, and a lot of things with egg on them, and this only scored about a 60 on the 100-point pork belly salty-sweet-unctuousness meter.
I don’t really have that much complaint about the pricing or the portions. It’s fairly remarkable to see “$3″ on a menu in an upscale-ish place at all. But our total tab for three (with a couple of drinks for each) was $138 before tax & tip, which seemed high to some of us for what we had (though I pointed out that if we hadn’t ordered the three somewhat more expensive fish/clam plates, or had managed only to order the one good one, the total would barely have broken $100, which seems pretty fair). Speaking of drinks, they have a few beers, some Asian-tinged cocktail creations which seemed okay (but mostly on the sweet side), and a very nice sake list put together by the former sommelier of L2O; I ordered one (which they have exclusively, apparently) called Azumaichi, which was like good wine instead of the usual lighter-fluid-mixed-with-chalk burn of standard big brand sake; both of my friends tasted it and ended up ordering it for themselves. Not that I have anything against a nice tall Hitachino beer, but I’d say play to their strength and check out the sake list.
In the end, I had a number of things I liked quite a bit— almost all at the start of the meal. But in the end, I was hoping for a new kind of experience, surprises of flavor and texture like I had in Columbus. Instead I went to a bar-restaurant kind of place and I ate a lot of meat… not that unusual an experience for me on a Tuesday night in Chicago. Chizakaya is a better than average addition to the scene, but I’m still waiting for an izakaya in Chicago.