Kai Zan – 2557 W Chicago Avenue, Chicago
You can be a purist, or you can embrace change. There’s a lot of places that take traditional sushi and other Japanese cuisine and put a modern spin on it, but there’s few that pull it off as well as Kai Zan, a nice spot in West Town that flies a bit under the radar because of it’s location. Places like Japonais and Roka Akor get more buzz because of the chic decor and the River North location, but Kai Zan offers up similar food at similar quality, but at a slightly lower price point. Add in that it’s BYOB and you can see why it gets the Yelp cred that it gets. We were able to score a same night reservation around 7pm. It sounds like they keep to a pretty tight schedule as we were informed we had a little over an hour to eat when we sat down. That put us off a little right off the bat, but ultimately after that, they never really pushed the issue and we ate without feeling rushed or pressed.
The menu is split into cold and hot appetizers, sushi and rolls, and a few choice robata style entrees, along with a nice selection of seasonal specials. We got a pretty wide mix of everything, although we were tempted to just go with one of the omakase choices (next time!)
We started with the angry crab roll and medium-thin sliced piece of maguro wrapped around a ball of fresh lump crab meat mixed with a spicy mayo and topped with pankos. A solid mix and a good way to start the meal. The tuna was more meaty and tender than fatty and melded nicely with the crab.
As someone who’s always on the lookout for good fried chicken, karaage is tough to pass up. While good, this was one of the more forgettable dishes of the meal. A bit salty on the batter and a bit overcooked.
The hamachi kama, taken from the neck/collar of the yellowtail, was the highlight of the meal. The grilled char gave the cooked fish a nice smokey flavor and the fish itself had a nice meaty texture. Cooked yellowtail is quite different from the raw hamachi most of us are used to and has a very fishy flavor, almost like mackerel. The portion size was very generous for the price. These apparently are in somewhat limited supply so if it’s in stock, I highly recommend grabbing one.
Like me and karaage, for Sara – if Tako yaki is on the menu, she’s ordering it. This skewer comes topped with just a touch of wasabi mayo, bonito flakes. These little fried octopus balls were solid and the bonito flakes, the wasabi mayo, and the touch of teriyaki gave it a nice mix of sweet, salty, and spicy.
Feeling like we had to sample a few things from every portion of the menu, we next ordered a few pieces from the grill. First, the slightly fatty cut of pork belly, served with a small side of kimchi, and the second, a large prawn,which was just a bit undercooked but massive in size.
To finish the meal off, we moved on to the raw fish portion of the meal. The salmon was superbly fresh and well cut to a nice thickness, and the escolar simlarly so, although it lacked a bit of the usual crisp, moist bite that bursts when you bite into it. We ended with a pair of raw ama ebi shrimps – fresh and sweet and followed by the meatiest, most flavorful shrimp heads I’ve ever had. These almost made the meal in itself.
Thankfully, the meal didn’t necessarily need the extra support from the shrimp heads. Even before that, there was a number of dishes that put this meal into the upper echelon of Japanese meals I’ve had in Chicago. I’d put the sushi just a step down from Katsu, but still better than 95% of the joints in Chicago. And we can’t wait to go back.