This is a good time to eat Japanese food in Chicago. Not that there has been a particularly bad time, in recent memory, during which Japanese cuisine was truly suffering here. But in the past year or so, I've been ever more giddy as I've witnessed the openings of (and later eaten at) a new wave of Japanese restaurants in Chicago that together have taken the scene to even loftier elevations—where the execution and presentation betray a laser precision, and the freshness and harmony of flavors leave you deeply sated.
I recall speaking with Chef Gene Kato of Sumi Robata Bar and Charcoal Bar back in late October of last year, not long before the opening of the much-anticipated spots. He was talking about the goal he had set for himself with the two new venues. "I really wanted to change Americans' perception of an authentic style Japanese restaurant," he told me. Referring to Sumi and Charcoal Bar respectively, he added that, "This is a real robata yaki; this is a place that you can get Japanese-style bartending service. To put everything together, our philosophy comes down to one word, which is takumi, which means artisan or craftsman. So you have people who spend their whole life focusing on one craft—that's it."
I've witnessed that spirit of artisanship not just at Sumi, which opened in January, but also while dining at one of the latest additions to the scene, Juno, as well as at Humboldt Park's Kai Zan, which has been open since early last summer and recently expanded into a neighboring space to increase its seating capacity. And while Juno and Kai Zan traffic in a couple of overlapping realms of Japanese cuisine (à la carte sushi, omakase tastings), I feel as if each of these three spots has its own unique spin on what the Japanese dining experience can be. And their presence on the scene seems to mark an intangible shift toward the distinctive nuance, sensitivity, and craft that is so shot through the meals one finds in Japan.
Chef B.K. Park left another lauded Chicago Japanese restaurant in Arami in order to open Juno. And when one considers the two spaces side-by-side, the conclusion one might draw is that Park was in search of a home more suitable to the bigger, bolder expressions he had swimming around his mind. Juno's entrance leads into a front dining room and bar with walls decked out in vivid murals that seem in direct contrast the to pale-wood solemnity of Park's former digs. In the back, there is the sushi bar, where Park and crew turn out handsomely, often elaborately crafted presentations of sashimi and nigiri (above). The breadth of seafood is also impressive: In addition to a core menu, the selection of fresh fish changes regularly with specials and may include delectable options like hotate (live scallop), kohada (gizzard shad), and kurosoi (black rockfish). Noticeably absent from Juno's sushi presentations, at least on dishes I received, are the accompaniments of wasabi and soy sauce—a clear signal from the kitchen that for Juno's fish and rice, crutches are unnecessary.
Circling the raw-fish offerings alone makes for a satisfying meal at Juno, what with their range, inventive garnishes and spicing, and impeccable freshness. But I have found that one of my favorite dishes at Juno is off the menu of hot starters: the grilled baby octopus ($14). Composed of tender arms of smoky octopus, plump edamame, juicy braised artichoke hearts, needles of preserved lemon peel, and toasty pepitas, this dish bests one of my favorite Japanese octopus salads in town. Chef Park has also brought along his ramen game to the new shop, with offerings like the heady duck ramen ($14) above, which comes brimming with rich, tender duck meat, a ghostly-soft boiled egg, and a meaty, almost stew-like broth.
Sumi Robata Bar
If Juno displays a tireless commitment to sushi, Sumi Robata Bar does the same for all things grilled. Chef Kato has truly followed that Japanese ethic of specialization, focusing almost exclusively at Sumi on the practice of working the super-hot Japanese robata grill. Ingredients are allowed to express themselves with minimal intervention. A sense of tradition pervades the dining experience as guests watch their food being prepared—a process often concealed from the Western eater.
Although most of the à la carte grilled menu is not available at lunch, I find myself gravitating to Sumi at midday for its bento boxes ($15), which offer a tasty compilation of Sumi's strengths, including and beyond what goes on the grill. The chicken bento—constructed around a skewer of smoky, juicy grilled chicken lacquered in house tare sauce—features a delicate miso soup laden with silky tofu, citrusy mizuna salad with strips of fried burdock root, and a flaky, crunchy seafood curry croquette filled with salmon and sea bream. This is what lunch should be.
One discovers the same intimacy with the chefs at both Sumi and Kai Zan, where only recently the restaurant has expanded beyond its sliver of an original footprint—not much more than a few tables flanking a roughly 10-seat sushi bar. Owners, brothers, and fellow chefs Melvin and Carlo Vizconde pack the BYOB daily with diners eager to sample their exquisite and inventive take on sushi, teppanyaki, and staples of izakaya pub fare.
For your money, it's hard to beat the chef's tasting, or omakase, which hovers around $50 to $60 depending on seafood market prices and amounts to a whirlwind tour of Kai Zan's brightest and freshest dishes. Courses often stack up into the double digits. You may not expect to at first, but after consuming an entire omakase dinner you will leave Kai Zan plenty full.
The chefs hardly confine themselves to what you might think of as traditional sushi, although a few courses do skew toward simple, elegant presentations of fish and rice. Roe appears to be a favorite ingredient, turning up in several dishes, such as the decadent paired oyster and uni shooters, each amplified with the inclusion of a quail egg. A multi-textured "tuna-tini," served in a small Martini glass, includes rich slices of raw tuna, chucks of avocado, and halves of bright baby cherry tomatoes. A duo of char-grilled whole smelts have the crunchy bite of softshell crab and a flavor somewhere between smoke and sea. Dishes grow progressively more substantive as you approach the completion of your meal&mdhash; often a one-two punch of platters arrayed with melt-in-your-mouth sashimi and cooked comfort foods like bacon-wrapped enoki mushroom and fried unagi sticks. However filling this grand tour may be—and there's not doubt that ti's filling—Kai Zan still leaves me wanting more.