The Vegetarian Option: Yusho
Despite the glut of examples that have opened over the past few years, the Japanese izakaya and yakitori house still feel to me like endangered species in Chicago. Maybe I'm just greedy for that singular kind of restaurant, which hooks you with its open-ended, unstructured meals marked by free-flowing drinks and big-flavored small plates. The array of fried goodies alone—perfect for towel-drying a wet evening—seems like reason enough for these joints to thrive in a dining scene like Chicago's.
So what explains the fizzles? Lure Izakaya Pub, which closed back in the spring for "relocation," was one of the latest casualties. There was also the short-lived Masu Izakaya, which in 2010 occupied a space on North Halsted Street (which seemingly has some bad restaurant mojo; R.I.P., Minnies). And who knows what the deal is with the second-floor Izakaya Hapa, in River North. Is it that no place quite gets the concept right? Or have us diners not quite warmed to these traditional Japanese pubs?
No matter what went down with some of these defunct establishments, let's be sure to do our part and nurture Yusho, because chef Matthias Merges and his kitchen staff there are not only doing the concept justice, they've elevated Japanese-bar cuisine to dizzying heights without losing sight of its casual, comfort-food roots. And Yusho's vegetarian plates display just as much ambition and flavor as the restaurant's fried and grilled fowl and delicate seafood.
A great place to begin is with the gobo root ($5.75), a stellar little salad of sliced Asian pear, ruby-fleshed plum, and deftly cooked gobo—a root vegetable popular in Japan that's known stateside as burdock. The fibrous gobo is left nice and crunchy, anchoring the plate's textural spectrum. Merges—who can reliably be found standing at the kitchen's service counter every evening, closely reviewing each dish before it goes out—is currently finding very interesting ways to work fruit into his dishes; the slightly tart pear and the plum's syrupy nectar play well against the savory, sesame-tinged elements of the salad's delicious dressing.
Why not follow up those fresh garden flavors with something robata-charred? The grilled tofu ($4.75) does nicely. The skewered tofu is big, juicy, and well-grilled. Fruit turns up again with chunks of smoky-sweet pineapple, which are accompanied by finely chopped walnut. Like I said: small plate, big flavor.
There's more where that came from, including housemade pickles as well as maitake mushrooms with egg vinaigrette and dashi gelee (which may not qualify as vegetarian for some eaters). So although the menu may be dominated with poultry and seafood, Yusho thoughtfully takes care of its vegetarian diners. For the sake of maintaining a robust Japanese pub culture, we Chicagoans ought to return the favor.