Sushi

Two Month Anniversary celebration at #katsuchicago

Katsu – 2651 Peterson Avenue – Chicago, IL

So Sara and I made it to 2 months!   And we’re still in love, after celebrating our real 2 month anniversary by cooking a wonderful meal of jja jjang myun and sous vide duck breast at home (yes, kind of all over the place), we decided to really kick it up and head up north to Katsu for some sushi.

Katsu may not be on your radar, and it’s sometimes hard to convince a city-dweller to head so far north for something that you can pretty much find every few blocks now – the first time we went, we are also dubiously skeptical.  But hands down, Katsu is the best sushi in Chicago. It’s been a staple up north for close to 30 years now, and chef Katsu himself, approaching 70 soon, fully admits he’s not slowing down – he’s a great personable guide to your sushi journey when you sit at the sushi bar.  Which we did, next to a nice gentleman who had just celebrated his 50th anniverssary – so Sara and I have a bit of work to do…

But back to the food, if you ask Zagat what the highest rated restaurant for food is in Chicago, Katsu is at the top, in the elite group of restaurants rated 29, such as the Achatz/Kokonas duo Alinea and Next, as well as Goosefoot (Vie and Bien Trucha are also 29’s but out in the burbs).   Having been to all four of those, I’d give Alinea the nod over Katsu, but I’d be willing to say that Katsu bests both Goosefoot and Next on the food-front.  The best way to describe it would be to see the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – now Katsu is probably no Jiro, and I’d be willing to bet that the sushi in Tokyo is a step above what we’re getting here, but it’s the closest thing you’ll get in Chicago to a sushi chef who cares about his craft as much as chef Katsu does.

If you go, I’d recommend getting a spot at the sushi bar – that’s what we did, getting the slightly cheaper (still $120) four course sushi omakase (there’s a similar priced sashimi omakase).  There is a $160 six course meal that adds in the chawanmushi dish that we split, along with both the sushi / sashimi plates.

Mackerel appetizer

Mackerel appetizer

We started with our waiter’s recommendation – a mackerel appetizer with unbelievably buttery, soft, finely chopped mackerel mixed with sliced scallions and minced ginger, a bunch of shredded daikon for a bit of refreshment.  A nice palate cleanser before the extravaganza set the stage for what was to come.  The presentation, like most dishes here, was stunning.

monkfish Liver

monkfish Liver

Tuna tartare

Tuna tartare

For the first course of the omakase, you get a choice of the tuna tartare or the monkfish liver – thankfully, since there’s two of us, we were able to split one of each.  The monkfish liver, soft and creamy in texture like a rich foie was served around beautiful rods of shiso jelly and topped with minced radish.  The tuna tartare is made from finely chopped toro, the mixed in quail egg just adding to the richness.

Lemony flounder!

Lemony flounder!

The next dish is Japanese comfort food at its best.  A perfectly soft almost poached flounder filet with a soft moist breadiness on the “crust”, served in a lightly lemon-tinged broth thick broth.  One of the more memorable dishes here – simple but perfeclty executed.

Tempura

Tempura

The tempura here is probably the least unique part of the meal here at Katsu, but it’s still a solid plate of lightly battered and fried vegetables.  What makes the tempura at Katsu different though is the choices and the freshness of the vegetables is clearly evident through the crispness.  Choices that night were enoki mushroom, lotus root, a fairly spicy shishito pepper, squash blossom(!), shiso leaf, purslane, and a filet of Japanese whitefish (accompanied by a nice little sheet explaining what purslane is and the proposed health benefits of it).

Chawanmushi...

Chawanmushi…

....with unagi inside

….with unagi inside

Back to Japanese comfort food, I felt like I had to try the chawanmushi here, and it did not disappoint.  A perfectly soft egg custard, nice texture, with a healthy portion of unagi cooked underneath, along with a few pieces of edamame and mushrooms, all mixing to give this dish a great mix of textures and flavors.

Sushi Plate!

Sushi Plate!

IMG_4958 IMG_4959 IMG_4960Finally, we get to the highlight of the meal – the nigiri course!   15 gorgeous pieces of a wide selection of the freshest fish you’ll probably find in the Chicagoland area and possibly the midwest.   Most of the pieces are garnished with an ingredient that complements the bite well and each piece is an extremely generous portion that makes it fairly difficult to take each down in one bite.

As instructed by Chef Katsu we started with the oyster, a kumamoto oyster from the Pacific Northwest, BC I believe.  After that we went straight from left to right.

Fresh yellowtail flown in directly from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, King salmon from Boston, topped with salmon roe and gold leaf, crisp, refreshing super white toro from Maine, topped with winter truffle, a creamy buttery squid.

Then, Sara’s favorite – sweet shrimp, also from Boston, with a massive fried Shrimp head (not quite as meaty as the one we had a few weeks ago at Kai Zan).  More ground toro followed amazingly fresh uni from Seattle, leaving the scallop, and the finale, a mackerel with a thinly shaved piece of seaweed that tempered the fishiness of the mackerel perfectly.

Katsu’s a bit of a hike up in Lincolnwood for us folks that live downtown, but in the end, a half hour drive is not that far travel for exceptional sushi.  The cost is a bit steep, so it’s definitely more of a special occasion spot, but cost is on par with most of the non-Alinea finer restaurants in the city, and you could definitely have a reasonably sized smaller meal off the omakase for under $100.   A 5 star experience all around.

 

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Modern Japanese done great @kaizanchicago

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!)

Angry crab - tuna, spicy crab, togarashi

Angry crab – tuna, spicy crab, togarashi

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.

Karaage - of course

Karaage – of course

Karaage

Karaage up close and personal

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.

Hamachi Kama - yum!

Hamachi Kama – yum!

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.

Tako Yaki - bonito, wasabi

Tako Yaki – bonito, wasabi

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.

A meal isn't complete until there's some pork belly / bacon!

A meal isn’t complete until there’s some pork belly / bacon!

Robata Prawn

Robata Prawn

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.

 

Assorted raw fish

Assorted raw fish

Ama Ebi

Ama Ebi

And the heads to finish it off....

And the heads to finish it off….

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.

 

 

 

The new and improved Japonais @JByMorimoto

Japonais by Morimoto – 600 W Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL When Japonais opened 10 years ago, I was living across the street, a surgical intern working 80-90 hours a week.  I remember getting drinks in the basement during its soft opening – I didn’t know anything about it other than it was a new bar and restaurant, so you can imagine how out of place I felt walking in wearing a Brian Urlacher jersey and a Bears hat, looking for a place to watch the 3pm games.  Japonais eventually became a neighborhood hot spot, constantly crowded and frequented by celebrities.  Even 10 years later, I felt like it was still getting buzz, and still was getting reasonable traffic, but for whatever reason, it was shut down and reconcepted a few months ago, with Iron Chef Masahiro Morimoto taking over the kitchen after chef Gene Kato left to start up the solid Sumi Robata Grill.  Over the past few weeks since it reopened, there’s been some excellent buzz, and a friend was in town who wanted to get some sushi so it was off to my old stomping groups we went to.

While the items on the menu at the new Japonais are widely different, the setup is similar to the past version – there’s some hot and cold appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and a selection of sushi – both rolls and nigiri.   The nice thing about eating with 6 people is that you can get a fairly wide variety.  For whatever reason, they put me in charge of ordering, so off we go!

Toro Taratare

Toro Tartare

We started our meal with the toro tartare  – a visually stunning display – a plate of high quality tuna belly that’s chopped finely into a paste-like consistency so it’s essentially a spread.  You basically take a small bite with your serving utensil – essentially a small spatula and dip it into one of the many accoutrements – soy, wasabi cream, creme fraiche, rice crackers, guac, and scallions (I think I got ’em all).  The plate is great, although with the toro chopped so finely, I think you lose a little of the quality flavor of the toro.  This was a fantastic dish, although for $28, a bit pricey.

Popcorn shrimp

Popcorn shrimp

Next up is the “popcorn shrimp” – lightly fried rock shrimp in two different sauces – the first (above) a slightly spicy gochujang sauce, the second (below) a wasabi aioli – both mild, both a bit creamy and rich, neither with enough bite to really be impressive, but good.

Tableside Tofu

Tableside Tofu

Tableside Tofu

Tableside Tofu – kimchi sauce, soy sauce, others

The tableside tofu was the first real highlight of the night, and probably where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck here.  I was sitting opposite the end where the waiter was explaining the process, but it involved ending with the statement “this doesn’t work about 30% of the time” – which I think is an overstatement, because I doubt they would be doing it that much.   But anyhoo – the tofu mixes perfectly with the kimchi sauce and soy dashi broth making a nice spicy, soy base sauced – sprinkle in a bit of fresh ginger to add a bit of bite to the dish – a healthy portion that gave all six of us a pretty good portion.

Assorted Sushi

Assorted Sushi

The sushi at Japonais hasn’t seemed to change much since before, in that it’s well above average.  The nigiri pieces – we got chutoro, kinmedai (big eye snapper), and hotate (scallop) – all very fresh – the chutoro was juuuuust a bit chewy, and the sushi rice was pretty average, and where Japonais’ sushi gets docked the most points.  The choices of rolls don’t stray too far from normal – which is a good thing, and allow the quality of the fish and ingredients to speak for themselves – we got a soft shell crab roll, spicy tuna, and spicy yellowtail – all simple and bare bones, and delish…From a pure sushi standpoint, Japonais easily stands in the upper third or quarter, but I still won’t put it at the level of Katsu or the now closed Masaki – both places I think that set the bar for sushi in Chicago.

Uni carbonara

Uni carbonara

Hamachi Bop

Hamachi Bop

Duck Confit Fried Rice with Fried Egg

Duck Confit Fried Rice with Fried Egg

We move on to the entree portion of the meal, getting the uni carbonara, the Ishi Yaki Hamachi Bop, and the Duck Confit Fried Rice.  All three dishes were solid and where Japonais really shines.  The Carbonara was tossed with very thin rice noodles that soaked up the rich uni sauce perfectly.  The quail egg mixes to add to the creamy consistency, and the english peas and pancetta spice up the textures nicely.  The Ishi Yaki Hamachi Bop was a little underwhelming – the fish was fresh and seared just a bit on the side of the stone bowl, but the mixture of ingredients ended up a bit blander than expected when stacked next to the uni carbonara and the duck confit fried rice, which may have been one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve ever had.  Simple, but extremely rich and flavorful, and the egg mixed in perfectly with the rice.

Air cheesecake

Air cheesecake

Chocolate tarte with raspberry sorbet

Chocolate tarte with raspberry sorbet

The two desserts we ended up getting were the perfect complement to each other.  The first, a super rich chocolate tart over a crispy chocolate wafer, topped with a fruity sorbet that yuzu undertones.  The second, a beautifully presented airy cheesecake with a subtle flavor that melts in your mouth.

In the end, Japonais was never bad to begin with, and I feel they kind of made a lateral move – it’s still a scene, the decor is different, but has the same vibe.  The sushi is great, but still could move up a notch or two.  The money on the menu is in the savory dishes – the hot appetizers and the entrees.  It’s still pricey, but won’t quite break the bank, and ended up being much less than I thought it would going into the night.  It’s a great spot for a medium-sized group (4-8).  And btw, get the Serenity off the cocktail menu – it’s dangerous….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally – some great sushi on restaurant row #tanoshiisushimikes

Tanoshii Sushi Mike’s – 720 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL

With the disappearance of Sushi Wabi and Sushi Dokku, it’s replacement being met with mixed reviews, restaurant row has been longing for a solid sushi joint to stand up with the likes of Steph Izard’s joints, Au Cheval, Grange Hall, and other standouts along the hottest restaurant strip in Chicago and possibly the country.  Enter Tanoshii Sushi Mike’s – a West Loop outpost of an Andersonville staple.  After a few weeks of a soft opening, Sara and I happened to stumble upon Tanoshii on their official opening night – and I’m glad we did!

The sushi bar at Tanoshii

The sushi bar at Tanoshii

The staff here was extremely welcoming and friendly – we hopped on a pair of stools at the bar – ordered a bit off the menu and had Mike, our gracious host and sushi chef, pick out a few rolls from his vast creative collection; our waiter reminded me of Glenn from The Walking Dead, minus the baseball bat, but he was extremely helpful and engaging.

"Fish and Chips"

“Fish and Chips”

Apparently one of the signature dishes at the Andersonville location is the “Fish and Chips” which came out with its ingredients beautifully stacked, and then mixed tableside into a mishmash salsa of fresh tuna, avocado, pico de gallo, and tobiko atop a crispy, lightly salted “chip”.  A generous heap of ingredients, a bit messy, but extremely refreshing.

Shishito Peppers

Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers are the new edamame and Tanoshii adds the usual fresh bonito flakes but also tops the dish with thinly sliced nori, which tones down the gentle spiciness of the shishitos just a bit much.  Not bad, but also a bit light on the quantity.  Otherwise good….

UUUUUUUnnnnniii!

UUUUUUUnnnnniii!

Ama ebi with the Shrimp Heads

Ama ebi with the Shrimp Heads

The uni here was very fresh – I’d say top 3rd (it’ll be tough to top eating fresh uni cracked right out of the shell from Pike’s Place market in Seattle) – nice and slimy with a deep rich flavor and topped over just the right amount of sushi rice.  The ama ebi was equally fresh – a solid choice, and the shrimp heads were perfectly fried, softer in the middle, and with just the right amount of salt.

Chutoro

Chutoro

Kana

Kama

We turn next to the tuna part of the meal, and a treat in that – a great test for the quality of a sushi restaurant and Mike delivered – fresh slices of chutoro and kana, cut from the tuna cheek – a rare find, both topped with just a perfect amount of soy mixed in with FRESH wasabi.  The chutoro was a bit chewy but still great, but the kama was phenomenal – so tender, it melts in your mouth and the taste lingers for long after you’re done.  Things like this make me want to end every meal with a a piece of super fresh tuna belly or cheek….

IMG_3942

Omakase roll #1 with crab, shitakke, rice paper, and Mike's secret sauce #1

Omakase roll #1 with crab, shitakke, rice paper, and Mike’s secret sauce #1

Omakase Roll #2 - toped with Tuna, Avocado and Mike's secret sauce #2 (spicy)

Omakase Roll #2 – toped with Tuna, Avocado and Mike’s secret sauce #2 (spicy)

IMG_3944

We finished the meal with a pair of Mike’s omakase rolls both on different ends of the taste spectrum – the first filled with crab meat, sliced avocado rice paper, and shitake mushrooms, topped with a sauce that imparted just the right amount of sweetness – the shitakes against the rice paper added an interesting texture to the top of the roll, and while the inside of the roll was not very unique, the combination worked well together.   The second roll was a slightly more interesting take on a spicy tuna roll, topped with slices of tuna and avocado.  The spicy sauce was a bit thinner than usual, and lacked a significant kick, but still flavorful.

A note about the sushi rice here, which has a slightly firmer texture, but the right mix of sweetness and vinegar

The word on Tanoshii is that it will stand up among the best in the city – first and foremost, the freshness of the fish is top notch, although not quite at the level of Katsu (and the recently closed Masaki).  The rolls and sauces are inventive without hiding the quality of the ingredients.  The staff is knowledgable and friendly, and Mike himself was extremely engaging during the meal.  While it’s not cheap, it won’t break the bank either.   I think it’s easy for a restaurant to get lost in the madness that is restaurant row, and the place hasn’t been getting a huge amount of hype, but hopefully the word gets out enough that Tanoshii can remain a staple in the area for years to come.

@sozaibanzai and @matsuri – Japanese in the burbs

Sozai Bonzai – 1089 E. Golf Rd., Arlington Heights, IL

Matsuri – 507 S. Third St., Geneva, IL

So last weekend, Sara and I had a couple excursions to the burbs, first for a trip to Abt on Saturday and Sunday a trek out to St. Charles to visit with the folks, since they just got back from a taxing trip to Hawaii.   While we were out there, we checked out two Japanese restaurants – one definitely worth checking out, the other….well, not so much.

Sozai Banzai!

Sozai Banzai!

We’ll start off the trek with a trip to Sozai Bonzai in Arlington Heights.  Typical strip mall setting and hard to find, since the overhand just says “Sushi & Grill” (look closer for the actual sign in the window).   Not much more impressive when you walk inside…but I think that’s what they’re going for.  Service was friendly and food came out reasonably quick.

 

Convenient list of the top dishes in case you're not sure what to order

Convenient list of the top dishes in case you’re not sure what to order

Pretty no frills

Pretty no frills

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, the first plus sign is that the menu is also in Japanese, a pretty good sign the place is legit authentic.   As you can tell from the pic, it’s pretty simple – a handful of tables, a beverage cooler next to the register, and some pretty low quality laminated menus.

Menu is all good Japanese comfort food – bentos, ramen, rice bowls, and some good apps.   Just what we needed on another snowy day (is this winter freeze *ever* going to end?  Man, I’ll tell you, though, when it’s flurrying out and 10 degrees, nothing hits the spot like a bowl of good ramen (well, maybe a glass of single malt, but hey, it was 1 in the afternoon)

Karaage appetizer

Karaage appetizer

Started off with a bite of chicken karaage – the Japanese version of Chicken nuggets.   These are not your typical McNuggets – karaage are small fried bites of chicken thigh marinated in soy sauce and garlic with a nice smooth crisp.  This version was solid – great flavor, well fried – squeeze a bit of lemon on it for some nice balance – perfect size for a starter.

Karaage Set-to

Karaage Set-to

Sara was a bit jealous or had the same idea and got the Karaage set – essentially the same dish surrounding by a good supporting cast of vegetables to round out the fried chicken – A tamago like omelet, a simple salad, and a few small plates of different types of seawood (cut off from the picture on the left).  Not a bad addition for an extra couple of bucks.

Negi Chashu Ramen!

Negi Chashu Ramen!

I ordered the Negi Chashu ramen – negi refers to the thinly sliced Japanese onion/leeks on top, the Chashu refers to the deeply flavorful pork base for the soup.  Served with a couple slices of pork (belly?  cheek?   not sure), a partially boiled egg, some bamboo shoots, and a single piece of nori as a backdrop, this dish was solid from start to finish.  First off, the portion size was perfect.   The negi and bamboo added a good balance of textures, and the boiled egg complimented it well, although it probably could have used another minute or so cooking.  The broth itself had great flavor without being overwhelmingly rich. The pork was sliced perfectly, very tender, but had just a bit too much fat on it.  All that aside, though, everything worked very well with this bowl of noodles, and was quite slurpworthy.

Sozai Banzai was awesome and worth checking out if you’re in the area.  We’ll almost definitely be back in the future.   It doesn’t quite get my “worth a trip out to the burbs by itself” recommendation, but in reality there’s only one restaurant that I can immediately think of that definitely gets that nod – will keep that a secret for now until I post about it.   But here’s a hint – it’s just west of Oak Park….

So Sunday, we took a trip out to St. Charles to visit my parents.  They had lucked out, leaving for Hawaii about 6 hours before the blizzard hit the day before the polar vortex, completely missing the worst of the cold (although it’s not much better now).  Since they had been travelling all morning, we offered to cook them dinner, but they insisted that we go out, and they were looking for sushi.  So we headed down to Geneva to check out Matsuri.

Matsuri is a pretty standard cookie cutter suburban Japanesse sushi restaurant.  We were the only people eating there at the time, but the room itself is decent size.

soft shell crab

soft shell crab

sauteed scallops and mushrooms

sauteed scallops and mushrooms

 

 

 

 

 

We started with the sauteed scallops and mushrooms, pretty meh – not much flavor, the scallops were a bit chewy.  The soft shell crab was pretty decent, served with a simple ponzu sauce on the sde.

Karaage (again!)

Karaage (again!)

For a third appetizer, we decided to go with the karaage, just to be able to compare with the day before.  Matsuri’s was well fried, but not as flavorful and a bit soggy when compared with the sozai banzai.  Still pretty good, but far from the best I’ve had.  I’m surprised this dish hasn’t caught on mainstream – I feel like it would be much more appealing than some other appetizers you typically see on a Japanese menu.

IMG_3657We got an assortment of nigiri next, and none of it was anything more than average.  The salmon didn’t have that really oily texture, the tuna was a bit firm and lacked good color, and the super white tuna was missing that burst of cool freshness when you bite into it.  The rice itself was lacking in flavor.   The unagi was the best of the lot, with a solid BBQ sauce on top and a good texture to the eel.

IMG_3660

Next were the rolls – a spider roll, spicy tuna roll, an Ebi crunch roll (california roll with cooked shrimp instead of imitation crab), and the Geneva roll, which I’m blanking on in terms of the ingredients.  Like the nigiri, the rolls were overwhelmingly underwhelming.  The spicy tuna had only a touch of kick to it, the spider roll lacked any crunch, as did the ebi crunch.

In the end, Matsuri is more or less you’re standard, run-of-the-mill sushi restaurant.  Given it’s one of the only sushi restaurants in the area, it’ll probably be around for awhile, but there are much better options in the Geneva area.  Ultimately, I’m probably just getting spoiled with good sushi.