Sky Full of Bacon


East Meets Western Suburbs… Or Not

I had a fantastic piece of sashimi the other night, really gorgeous, everything that you could want in a piece of raw fish: supple, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth good, with just the lightest hint of other flavors to accent it and turn it into a composed bite.  I ate at Nabuki, a new sushi restaurant in Hinsdale which both Phil Vettel and Pat Bruno have praised.

Unfortunately, the first sentence in that paragraph has nothing to do with the second.  I bring the first one up because after eating at Nabuki, my dining companion and I were talking about how you tell great sushi from okay sushi, his feeling being that it’s all kind of the same. All I could say was, you know when magic happens, and so you know when you’re just eating raw fish, too.  The magical piece of sashimi was at Perennial, the so-called fish taco.  The fish was ethereal, offering qualities of delicacy and subtlety that no other food could offer, and the tortilla-flavored foam, in addition to being funny (the most proletarian of foodstuffs rendered absurdly precious), was the only thing that could match it for texture and evanescent effect.

By comparison, I had high quality fish at Nabuki, prepared skillfully in what has to be the chicest lounge ever to hit Hinsdale’s quaint-bordering-on-stodgy 1950s-New England downtown. But from the start of our meal (which I should point out was partly comped as a media dinner, though we wound up paying about half of the total, mostly bar tab and full-amount tip), I got the sense of a place holding back, taming down Japanese food (and sugaring it up) for an audience that might freak out at anything that more than dipped its toe into sushi waters.

This is nothing unusual in American sushi restaurants— fat sushi rolls lubed up with mayo and coated with sticky-sweet sauce are sushi to way too many young trendies in places like Wicker Park. But I doubt even the trendiest-shallowest of them in the city would go so far as to assure us that there was no seaweed in the rolls, or to push us to so many items that had no fish stronger or stranger than tuna or salmon on them, or to make a point of assuring us that a special of aji (which is sometimes called “jack mackerel”) didn’t have a mackerel taste. Or to, honest to God, make sure we knew that sashimi was raw fish before we made the ghastly mistake of ordering any. (This after we were self-identified as media, and thus presumably somewhat experienced in eating things beyond Hot Pockets.) Hinsdale may be a wealthily conservative burb, but I assume these people do travel and eat out in the city, do they really need this level of handholding? Are they really that prone to flipping out in terror and going running down the street, past The Gap and Yankee Peddler, if their lips touch nori or taste the fishiness of mackerel? In 2011? I don’t believe it.

It’s too bad because there is potential here, even if I’m obviously a lot less forgiving of this underestimation of their audience than Vettel (“The deluxe sashimi platter is $25 but worth it for the high-quality fish; it would be better with more adventurous fish choices, but Nabuki is, at 3 months old, still learning what its audience will tolerate”). The aji was a presentation stunner (that’s it at the top) and also the best thing we had, a meaty fish in a citrusy soy sauce. A bit too much citrus to my taste, maybe covering up the fish’s own very mild taste, but within reason and not oversweet. In the middle of it was speared a smoked fish, which we were invited to nibble on as well; maybe it’s an encouraging sign that the special was by far the most exotic thing we would see all night. Develop ten more like it and kill an equivalent number of things on the current menu, and maybe…

By comparison, the rolls were in no danger of causing overexcitement. One from the specials menu— escolar seasoned with what almost tasted like Cajun blackening spice, and torch-cooked— was just kind of strange, but went over well enough, and wasn’t candied up. Another, though, was safe to the point of tedium— the most conservative and generic fishes (tuna and salmon) with nothing like nori to provide contrast, as drizzled with gooey stuff as a coffee cake (which it, indeed, resembled).  That’s the problem with taking one item out of the basic structure of an Asian dish because it might be too weird for some people— you’ve taken out its backbone, the piece that gave everything else character and definition.

And the entrees we had were so safe they should have been plated on orange reflector vests. A tuna tartare with avocado and caviar (which is to say, tobiko, not beluga) was, again, stunningly plated, but just as stunningly devoid of flavor— too much avocado, a mushy baby-food texture, a little heat but no salty bite from the “caviar,” again with the sweetness on the chips. This was a gorgeous plate with nothing upstairs; I kept searching it for flavor like a private eye rifling a file cabinet. A filet, supposedly marinated in wasabi (all but undetectable), was, if you looked at it out of context, a very well-crafted dish— a perfect tender medium-rare with a blackened exterior, atop a pile of mashed sweet potato with a veal stock around it. It was just as good when I had it at any upscale American or Italian or Continental restaurant in Chicago in 1993; what was supposed to make this very standard, something less than contemporary American dish at all Japanese was a mystery to me. Maybe it’s what Japanese golfers order when they play the Hinsdale Country Club.

The irony is that there are quite authentic Japanese restaurants not very far away at all in the suburbs— at least considering what I drove to get here, I wouldn’t regard Sakuma in Streamwood as all that far away, to name one— but this one seems philosophically aimed about as far away as it could be from them. Maybe there’s an audience in Hinsdale for this and it’s aimed squarely at local tastes, but I like to think that the crowd spending this amount of money— and it’s priced fully for the quality of ingredients used— has the experience and the taste to want more. I’d like to think that what its audience won’t tolerate is the potential of fine ingredients— or a capable chef— being lost amid sugar and timidity.

Nabuki
18 East 1st Street
Hinsdale, IL 60521
(630) 654-8880

Here’s my dining companion’s considerably mellower take.

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3 Responses to “East Meets Western Suburbs… Or Not”

  1. Matthew Says:

    As I’ve explored more widely into Japanese food, and tasted well-made sushi, these sorts of crimes against the cuisine piss me off more and more. There’s nothing wrong with innovation (reading Morimoto’s book is, like, mind-blowingly awesome), but destroying the soul while pandering to a taste for sugar and emulsified fat should be a crime. It probably is a crime in Japan. I hope both the Hinsdale crowd and the kitchen crew at Nabuki figure out a way to successfully explore in more interesting directions.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    Well, they seem to like the emulsified fat just fine in Japan, where mayonnaise seems to be one of our major cultural contributions. But the sugar is wrong, and makes it hard for me to take so much restaurant sushi here– frankly I’d rather have the no-great-shakes sushi from Whole Foods than one of those rolls where they feel the need to dress it up ten different ways, all of which will be too sweet for me. Any time I see that the main focus of a sushi place is rolls, I strike it from my list.

  3. Matthew Says:

    Mayonnaise definitely has a huge place in Japan, and for good reason, but not on raw fish.

    Takoyaki or okonomiyaki, on the other hand!

    I’ve wondered for a while, what does roll mean when people complain about sushi? Are we talking about all maki, or just those huge cones?

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