Sky Full of Bacon

Itzakaya? Notsofasta

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.

Octopus salad.

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.

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5 Responses to “Itzakaya? Notsofasta”

  1. JohnDPaul Says:

    I absolutely enjoyed Chizakaya and find it refreshing to find a Japanese restaurant based on something other than sushi. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sushi, but Japanese food is more than raw fish and rice, just like American food is more than just cheeseburgers and fries.

    The puffed pig ears and sauce were one of my favorites, I wanted this all to myself. And the egg dishes, I just couldn’t get enough, I saved one of the eggs and used it as sauce for other dishes. The crispy chicken skins weren’t to my tasting so I gave it to my friend and he loooved it, really loved it. So many more dishes I want to try. The drinks were an experience in itself. As with any other place, when you add drinks, your bill goes up so that isn’t any surprise. I found the drinks moderately priced, actually pretty good compared to other establishments.

    It’s all a matter of personal taste. I found it interesting that in your blog you mentioned that you “haven’t eaten in izakayas…in Japan” and the only place is the one in Columbus, yet your last sentence says that you’re “still waiting for an izikaya in Chicago.”

    Not only did I find the food tasty, the atmosphere was very nice, modern and very inviting. My friends and I had a great time, having conversation, eating, drinking, watching as the kitchen prepared our food. The servers were so nice and just made it a pleasant experience. I’m definitely going back and find Chizakaya a wonderful addition to Chicago’s restaurant scene.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    I certainly think Japanese food is more than raw fish and rice. If you look at what I had in the meal in Columbus (linked in the piece), it was:

    “I basically ordered off the specials list, with a little guidance from my waitress, and I was very happy about a plate of tender grilled pork cheek meat; an eclectic combination of things like mountain yam and baby octopus in soy sauce; “box sushi” (sushi pressed very very square in a box; it reminded me of the Thingmaker I had as a kid) made with mackerel; and a very interesting special in which a shrimp paste was pressed in between pieces of lotus root and deep fried.”

    Compared to that, I forgot for long stretches that I was in a quote-Japanese restaurant last night. Chizakaya had cheek, too, but it could have been the braised cheek in an Italian ragu; and the octopus salad was only slightly closer to Tokyo than Sicily. (Interestingly, they also had mackerel on the menu, but were out of it due to the oil spill or something.) And there was nothing like the lotus root dish, no sign of things like mountain yam or other specifically Japanese vegetables (turnips hardly count).

    Again, I’m not saying that makes Chizakaya a bad restaurant at all– it just doesn’t make it all that much of a Japanese one. That’s what I’m still looking for.

  3. Arturo Says:

    I’ve eaten at lots of izakaya (and other restaurants) in Japan. Chizakaya isn’t a Japanese restaurant like any I’ve been to there, although I admit I’ve never been to anything with any upscale fusion aspirations. I, too, was hoping for something more authentic, and was disappointed because of it. One of the chefs mentioned that they had considered some funkier yakitori, like bonjiri or shiro, but had thought it wouldn’t sell.

  4. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Whatzakaya? Thatzakaya! Says:

    […] has produced more wildly divergent views than Chizakaya, the new izakaya-style quasi-Japanese place which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  The official review-reviews are still pending, but first people on […]

  5. Kenny Says:

    Might I suggest that you turn off whatever the feature on your blog is that leads to Comment #4 appearing? I had to stop reading The Local Beet a long time ago because of that annoying “feature”.

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