Sky Full of Bacon

So did we all just agree to pretend that we knew words like “izakaya” and “robata grill” a year ago? Restaurant owners are opening them like mad and food writers are using them like they’ve known them since grade school, but while I certainly knew that there was Japanese food grilled on sticks before last week, the word for it tended to be “yakitori”— as it still is at by far the best and seemingly most authentic of them I’ve been to, Yakitori Totto in New York. But I think in general “yakitori” came to be associated with chicken sticks in mall food courts, so new words were imported for trendier spots. Nonetheless, after eating at three different American versions of this general category of cuisine, I’m not sure I’m not more confused about what the real Japanese version of this is like than I was before. There’s often good food to be had, on sticks and off, but “izakaya” seems to be quickly becoming as non-specific as, say, bistro or trattoria.

Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill doesn’t say izakaya but the promise of a robata grill— well, the first time I heard the term I feel I was promised a giant robot cooking my food, but it turns out to mean kind of a campfire cookout using a particular (and expensive) form of oak charcoal called binchotan. Only the high end places in town actually use that (Sushi Samba Rio and the new Roka Akor, apparently), and so far as I can tell, Yuzu is just using a standard restaurant grill. Yuzu’s up-to-the-minute trendiness cred is nonetheless furnished by sushi chefs in hipster hats, obscenity-filled rap blaring over the speakers, and, well, the trendy fruit in the name.

What this turns out to be in reality is a reasonably priced neighborhood sushi joint with some cooked items, and on those terms it wasn’t bad at all. The sushi wasn’t overly dressed up— yes, it had a sliver of lime on top, but at least they weren’t drowning good fish in unneeded flavors or pushing gooed-up maki rolls. A curry puff was like most Japanese curries, sweet and lacking complexity next to Indian curries, but enjoyably comfy.

The grilled items off the robata grill went two for four, I thought. The steak and scallop were simple and just what they should be. A rectangular hunk of pork was too thick and coated in too much sesame-paste sauce, and chicken was a little dry and underexciting. I wish there were more and more unusual offerings, a la Chizakaya, especially since I would have had bigger portions for less of them here. Yuzu isn’t a place to go out of your way to visit, but it’s a little more unusual and interesting than the generic neighborhood sushi place found all over town.

Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill
1715 West Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
(312) 666-4100

When you gaze across the dining room of Tokio Pub you can imagine yourself in any fashionably dark and sleek Asian-hipster locale in the city. Only once your gaze reaches the window and sees parking lot stretching like a Texas ranch beyond does it become obvious you’re in Streets of Woodfield, attached in fact to the branch of Shaw’s in the parking lot (better to be Shaw’s spinoff than Big Bowl’s).

I came here as a guest of the publicist, ostensibly because they were having Maki Month or something like that. For me, maki rolls are guilty until proven innocent, all cute names and sweet flavors obliterating any Asian fish flavor; and I wasn’t encouraged here by the fact that their menu features tacos (I still don’t get that). So I gravitated as much as I could to the grilled items off their, yes, robata grill, the menu says so.

Surprisingly, the maki were admirably restrained, not overdressed, simple and with clean fish flavors. Also surprisingly, a drink with the ghastly-girly name of Blushing Geisha (I asked the bartender to instead call it a Stammering Samurai) was a nicely tart, well-balanced gin cocktail (with prickly pear juice and lime sour). Like the decor, this part of the menu transcended the cartoonish concepting and seemed pretty genuinely cool and good. If you ever have a need for a hip place to get a drink and some snacks in Schaumburg, I can’t imagine there’s a better choice. Or many at all, but still.

Unfortunately, the robata grill items had been American-suburbanized-supersized-gloppified. All the cuts were too huge to grill well or eat off a stick comfortably; all except the spicy shrimp were coated in a thick honeyish glaze straight out of the orange chicken at Panda Express. There was good meat under there, but it didn’t need to be, the way it was mistreated. The virtues of small, freshly grilled slices of meat are so obvious, I can’t imagine how anyone saw that and thought, what this needs is to be dripping high fructose corn syrup by the quart. Bummer. The meal ended with dessert sushi, which I preferred to think of as a Moto-like joke course, looks like sushi, tastes like Fro-Yo! Anyway, the creme brulee was fine.

I never did find out what the tacos were about. Maybe by the rule of inverse expectations at play here, they’re pretty good.

Tokio Pub
1900 E Higgins Rd
Schaumburg, IL 60173
(847) 278-5181

Izakaya Yume is in what at first glance seems a hardly more prepossessing location for authenticity— a strip mall at Golf and Milwaukee. But in fact this stretch of Niles is a little hidden-in-plain-sight ethnic food-shopping enclave— catecornered is Himalayan Restaurant, the Nepali place David Hammond, Jennifer Olvera and I visited in Hammond’s recent radio exploration of suburbia’s ethnic gems. Korean is dominant in this stretch, with Polish a close second, and Izakaya Yume appears to be a Japanese restaurant run by Koreans. It was less like other izakayas I’ve been to— no food on sticks, at least for grilling rather than making them pretty— and it’s basically all fish-oriented, no beef skewers or chicken fat, but however much it matches an authentic Japanese izakaya or not, it’s an authentic something, and making very simple Asian food very well for prices that are scandalously cheap.

A few free starters aside, we began with a sashimi platter, but urged the chef— formerly of Japonais— to pick us out interesting things and not assume that we wanted the safest choices. He decided to give us about half of his standard sashimi platter for two, and to round it out instead with a small mackerel cut into pieces, showing us a small tray of the gleaming black fish to close the deal.

If describing food is hard, describing slices of raw fish is harder yet, so there’s little to say except that it was all of excellent quality, pristine and impeccably fresh, sliced with skillful delicacy. At $21.99 for a good twenty pieces (plus a terrific little octopus salad), it was a steal.

A discordant note came when we saw him preparing oysters for a large party. My dining companion shriveled in horror as the chef washed the liquor out of the oysters in his sink, then replaced it with soy sauce. I could tell he thought this was sacrilege, losing the best part of the oyster down the drain. Ten of them went off to the large party… and then the chef plated two more for us, on the house. My friend tried to smile, kind of like the one Christina Ricci makes when she gets sent to happy-time camp in one of the Addams Family movies.

They were all right, but even I, oyster-clueless as I am, don’t get why you’d want to ditch the liquor. Anyway, next up we tried to order a couple of things off the grilled menu, which features about 7 or 8 fish (plus a few more as specials). The chef urged us to only order one. We looked at each other and felt pretty confident we could polish off two filets of fish between us, but for the moment, accepted his advice. I mean, the mackerel we ordered was only $12.99, how big could it be?

Like the Hungryman’s Special at Red Lobster, that’s how big. It basically was two full filets a foot long from the meatiest part of a good-sized fish. Again, the preparation was simple and perfect, grilled to a crisp but just a nudge past flaky inside, the oil collecting at the bottom for when you wanted especially crispy-greasy bites.

The price in the end was $90, but considering that $40 of that was a bottle of sake, this was an utter bargain for the quality and quantity of the fish and the chefly attention paid to our meal. (It helped that it was a quiet Tuesday night; I have a feeling on a busy Friday night, the painstaking attention paid to each dish would really slow things down.) Roka Akor, in River North, may by all reports be the Japanese restaurant of the year, but for those of us not on an expense account capable of encompassing a $14 truffle shaving add-on to our $144 wagyu steak, it’s far more exciting to find a discovery like this making genuinely first-rate food at delivery pizza prices. The only thing some might find no bargain is the seating; for some reason, the bar seats are down at kindergarten classroom level, making it hard to see what’s going on far, far above you with the chef, and harder to get back up to a standing position once you’re full. I don’t know whether those chairs are authentic to the izakaya experience either, but they’re a price I’m willing to pay for whatever authentic experience this was.

Izakaya Yume
9626 N Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714
(224) 567-8365

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Two return visits:

I liked some of the things I had at Chizakaya, but was pretty sure one dinner there would do me. For one thing, it was a “small plates” place where the plates were so small that I had to eat most of the menu to be full, so there were few surprises left for a return visit. For another, I basically came out of that meal feeling that it wasn’t a serious way to eat— that I had noshed all evening on silly stuff (the scraps of chicken skin for $3 silliest of all) and had never eaten what a grownup would recognize as food.

But Mike, you say, you ate things on sticks at that yakitori place in New York and you loved it. What’s the difference? Good question, and I’m not sure why I can rave about one and feel so dubious about the other. I guess part of it is context— Yakitori Totto feels like a real Japanese bar, and we ate things real Japanese barflies ate, while Chizakaya feels like another Lakeview concept, and at some point I just wanted them to quit goofing on Japanese junk food and make a real plate of something. One dish that really felt like Japan in a bowl would have done the trick, maybe, but instead it was just greasy stuff on sticks all night. Tasty, some of it, but I didn’t respect it, or me, in the morning.

Then Michael Nagrant invited me to go try lunch there, lunch being focused on ramen and other soups or so the email from Tasting Table suggested (actually, it appears that they’ll pretty much make you anything on their menu at lunch, and the soups are just as available at dinner). We ordered two. One is based on oden, which is a broth with lots of things like fish balls to pick up and eat; this was sort of oden turned into a soba noodle soup, more noodles and broth, fewer things to pick up:

Mostly, this tasted like your typical udon soup, but there was a woodsy-buckwheaty note to it that was a little deeper and more evocative than the sweet, soy-broth flavor you usually get. For a few bucks more than, say, the udon at Mio Bento, it’s an upgrade, if not a radically better one.

The ramen was another story. Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t been to any of the hyperauthentic ramen places in L.A. or anywhere that have been scouted out by ramen bloggers, so if I say that this is the best ramen I’ve ever had, that’s not an opinion with a depth of experience behind it. But it was the best ramen I’ve ever had, the first ramen with the porky funk and the largeness of soul to make me understand why people wax so poetic about a noodle soup— why this is a dish capable of profundity. The organ-meaty funkiness of the broth and the velvety smoothness of the noodles, not to mention the sweet-salty porkiness of the slab of pork belly or two hidden in it, all made this a richer experience than I’d ever expected ramen to be. So Chizakaya, written off as lightly likable some months back, turns out to have more to it after all.

* * *

Nagrant had just been to the recently refurbished NoMi in the Park Hyatt, now under Chef Ryan LaRoche (who had been in the kitchen for a couple of years under longtime chef Christophe David), and I was going that night (with my wife, as guests of the restaurant <–disclosure), so I was eager to hear about his experience. He was impressed with LaRoche’s menu, which within the constraints of hotel dining (after the fancy exotic stuff, there’s a page devoted to plain cooking, for those who just want a steak or lobster) he felt was daring and inventive. He was less impressed with a service experience that left him worried that a top-drawer restaurant had gone too casual for its place in the world. (See the next issue of Chicago Social for more details, I guess.)

My only experience with NoMi was this special dinner, which gave a nice picture of the expertise in the kitchen but clearly not of everyday dining there. But at least it meant I had context for how the renovation, if not radically changing the space, had taken it from a borderline-sepulchral high end art museum feel to a jazzier 60s fantasy-airport lounge look. The kitchen was now open to the room, with a busy raw bar at one end and the de rigueur hood ornament of the modern kitchen, the red Berkel slicer, right out in the room:

LaRoche’s past experience includes Tru and L’Atelier Robuchon, but from his menu, he seems pretty eclectically devoted to most of the major virtues you want to see on a menu right now. There was housemade prosciutto as well as an unabashed shoutout to Benton’s Country Ham on the menu, while asparagus, rhubarb and especially peas all played prominent roles on the menu at this moment. The first thing we had, the unassumingly named “avocado toast,” was the kind of combination that could provoke a loud WTF?, prosciutto and creamy uni, sea urchin:

The first bite I had, unfortunately, tasted only of the spicy mustard on the toast, but the next bite delivered all the promise of the dish— saltiness coming not from the sea creature but from the ham, a lushly gooey mouthfeel with just the cleanest hint of the sea coming from the uni… score one for the bizarre-sounding combination, with bonus points for the fact that my wife, who I’m sure has never gulped down a slimy-looking uni shooter like I have, ate one of sushi’s best-known dare foods without even knowing it was anything to be grossed out by.

A salad with more of the prosciutto and chili-tinged shrimp seemed less inspired, but some pea ravioli with feta and little bits of pickled rhubarb was exactly the ultra-light spring dish you should have at this moment. Then there was our entree— the $75 chicken, which has drawn comment from several who have looked at the new menu. We ran into sommelier Aaron Sherman (whom I first met some years ago at Avenues) on the way out, and he said one of the things they had done with the wine list was thin out the most extravagant and absurdly expensive things on it— but still, if you have a need to drop $2200 on a bottle of Romanee-Conti, a reason why your business would be best served by spending that money, it’s on there.

Likewise, the menu has three increasingly extravagant shared dishes— a whole chicken, a whole lobe of foie gras, and a whole steer— no, not quite, but some crazily huge hunk of beef, on an ascending scale from $75 to, I think, $190.  Nagrant had goaded me to at least find out what could make the chicken worth $75— especially since it comes from T.J.’s at the Green City Market, from whom I’ve bought many things including a few Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure their chicken is as good a candidate as any to be glorified into a $75 chicken, but what happens between the market and my plate that makes it into such a remarkable beast?

Yet $75 for two was really not more than any other pair of entrees, so we didn’t feel that we were sticking the hotel too rapaciously by ordering it and finding the answer to the mystery of this chicken. Well, in short, if they have trouble getting people to pay that for it, maybe they can have it underwritten by the American Sous-Vide Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, because it was a marvelous advertisement for the ability of sous vide cooking to turn out meat that is uniquely velvety, sensuously soft and delicate. There was a truffle sauce poured over the top, surely helping sell the price, and it sat on a vegetable “marmalade” (which I take to mean, cooked long enough to develop their sweetness; it certainly wasn’t jam-like), but really, all that chicken needed was its own meltingly soft and silky self to wow you and leave you making little gurgle noises of enchantment. It was certainly the best fine-dining chicken I can recall having… since the last time I dropped a wad to get a chicken just to see what made that chicken worth so much more than other chickens, a poulet Bresse at Alain Ducasse in Paris.

The new pastry chef is Meg Galus, who came over from Cafe des Architectes.  I have to say I respected the desserts more than I loved them.  Actually,  I liked mine, a rhubarb soup with ginger marshmallows and lemon gel in it, a lot; light, imaginative… it’s just it’s the sort of thing that should be a small shooter on a tasting menu.  Working my way through an entire bowl of red punch and marshmallows, the novelty ran out before it was done.  While the chocolate mousse was well executed, but I was waiting for some spin on it and the bland ice cream (vanilla? not sure) wasn’t it.

And as for the service?  For us, it hit just the right note, friendly and easygoing but conscientious throughout (I felt like I had hurt the bread guy’s feelings when I turned down his offer at one point, as he appeared the instant I stopped chewing the previous roll).  NoMi, perhaps a bit intimidating in the past, is aiming to be more accessible, and at least for us on our night, it hit the balance pretty well.

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