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Essential Japanese Eating

Eleven Reader-recommended restaurants

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Bob San

1805 W. Division | 773-235-8888

$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 12:30, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL 11:30

Proper raw-fish minimalists typically have nothing but scorn for the dark sound-tracked nightclubs that chum fashionable neighborhoods for suckers eager to accessorize their nights out with gaudy fish candy. With a dining area and lounge, Bob San has the latter market locked up—it's the place to be seen washing down your crabby dragon roll with a saketini. So hats off to Bob Bee. He's a hell of a businessman, but no bottom feeder: the sushi bar at Bob San is also a haven for people who take their sashimi and sushi seriously. Show a little interest and Bee and his knowledgeable crew will guide you through the day's best and most unusual catches, presenting them in artful textural combinations and contrasts that don't distract from their God-given freshness—a face-off between fresh- and saltwater eel, for example, or a plate of engawa, the pale pink and resilient fin muscle of a flounder, or a tip to punch up your already lusty mackerel with a bit of refreshing shiso leaf. In these encouraging circumstances it's easy to forget what comes from the kitchen; simple, winning dishes like gomae or black cod with miso, a heartbreakingly silky and ephemeral piece of fish that dissolves in the mouth like a dream of lush beauty. —Mike Sula

Chiyo

3800 W. Lawrence | 773-267-1555

$$

asian, JAPANESE | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: TUESDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO

I guess Chicago wasn't ready for an all-kaiseki restaurant. Elaborate multicourse dining based on simple, pure ingredients chosen to philosophically coincide with the changing seasons was an ambitious idea for this town, and the meal I ate at Matsumoto, Isao Tozuka and chef Seijiro Matsumoto's Albany Park restaurant, was one of my most memorable. But despite intense media interest the place never seemed to be occupied by more than a few diners at a time. The doors closed, ostensibly for vacation, and when the restaurant reopened as Chiyo, the great Matsumoto—a man licensed to prepare fugu in five cities—was gone. Kaiseki is still available (it must be ordered four to five days in advance), but now Tozuka and his charming wife, Chiyo, focus on more conventional Japanese fare including teriyaki, sukiyaki, and shabu-shabu with a choice of prime or Wagyu beef airfreighted from Japan. The last two are showy performances in their own right, and Chiyo is still a restaurant where one can sample the uncommon, like ankimo, or monkfish liver, otherwise known as the foie gras of the sea. The standard array of sushi and sashimi items is available, prepared with skill, though somehow lacking the pristine freshness that Matsumoto delivered. —Mike Sula

Daruma

1823 W. Golf, Schaumburg | 847-882-9700

$$

asian, japanese | Lunch: Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

Clean lines and Japanese decor make a pleasing setting for good simple cuisine. Sushi and other fresh fish dishes are winners, although they arguably don't meet the same high standard they did years ago. Carryout is easy if you're in a hurry. Kids are welcome, and the menu offers plenty they're likely to enjoy, such as noodle dishes and teriyaki chicken. There's also a private tea room. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Ginza Restaurant

19 E. Ohio | 312-222-0600

$$

asian, japanese | Lunch, Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Let us rejoice that places like Ginza Restaurant—housed in the divey Tokyo Hotel—live on amidst River North gentrification. A comfortably worn hole-in-the-wall, it attracts downtown workers and Japanese, the latter always a good sign. Don't look for fancy-pants maki or "fashion sushi"; instead you'll find old-school sushi and sashimi platters, reasonably priced for the neighborhood. But Ginza—in addition to predating the sushi fad that began in the 80s and has only grown more frenzied—is perhaps best known for traditional home-style Japanese dishes such as piping hot noodle soups and tonkatsu, a breaded, deep-fried pork chop. Service is congenial, and you've gotta love the unpretentious, pale wood sushi bar, chefs working away behind it diligently. It's a far cry from the Bloomingdales home store in the old Masonic temple. —Kate Schmidt

Katsu

2651 W. Peterson | 773-784-3383

$$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | DINNER: SUNDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY, TUESDAY

Long before the tsunami of overpriced, overdesigned sushi bars struck West Town, Katsu Imamura was quietly and unpretentiously elevating sea creatures to their edible ideal in less fashionable West Rogers Park. No Prada-toting poseurs cram this pair of narrow dining rooms, but Imamura and his wife, Haruko, have earned the loyalty of traveling Japanese businessmen and discerning locals with their friendly attention and superb high-quality fish. The best approach is to place your fate in Imamura's artist's hands and allow him to craft a sashimi combination of his choice. Long slabs of that day's most beautiful fish drape over each end of the rice, accented with fresh minty shiso leaf, tiny mounds of caviar, and flecks of gold leaf. Nigiri is generously portioned; Imamura says that while most sushi chefs use their four fingers as a measurement, he sizes it against his four fingers splayed. That's just one way in which Katsu, despite prices that can be steep (special sushi combos range from $38 to $48, and a multicourse special chef's menu is $100 and up with advance reservations), surpasses the still more exorbitant see-and-be-seen scenes. Don't overlook the cooked dishes and specials, which make the most out of the rare and seasonal: a grilled yellowtail jaw, amazingly moist and tender, is armored with crispy caramelized bits. Nuggets of lightly fried flounder fillet crown the fish's equally delicious, delicate, extra-crispy skeleton. A saucer of raw quail's egg atop a pile of shredded daikon, green onion, and wasabi is meant to be mixed into a cup of cold tea and used as a dip for green-tea buckwheat noodles. Even simple dishes like thin grilled slices of steaky beef tongue or a tender sectioned squid come off like they were born, raised, and sacrificed just for you. —Mike Sula

Kohan Japanese Restaurant

730 W. Maxwell | 312-421-6254

$$$

asian, JAPANESE | LUNCH, dinner: SEVEN DAYS | CLOSED SUNDAY

Amid the condos and franchises of an utterly transformed Maxwell Street is Kohan, a pleasant place with clean lines, earth tones, and a glass-enclosed teppan (large griddle) in the back. The publicity for the restaurant announces that it offers "fashion sushi," which our server explained is "really pretty sushi." Well, to me a strip of fresh toro is a thing of beauty. There are many maki: the Sensual Pleasure Roll is spicy scallops and tuna with miso-based "modern dressing"; the UIC Roll combines lightly fried soft-shell crab with asparagus and avocado. A number of dishes come Trotter-like on their own specially designed plates, elegantly arranged according to arcane foodie feng shui. Exquisitely simple, though, is the Kohan fried rice with fresh vegetables, sizzled on the teppan by the grill masters (I watched ours juggle a raw egg from spatula to knife, catching it behind his back). Kohan has a large menu, including sushi and sashimi; grilled seafood, fish, and meat; bento boxes; and bulgogi (one of the owners treated us to some house-made kimchi) and other Korean dishes—there's a second room devoted to table-top grilling. The staff is superlatively friendly, and the food is well made and offered at reasonable prices. —David Hammond

Mitsuwa Marketplace

100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights | 847-956-6699

$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | 9 AM-8 PM DAILY

A visit to Mitsuwa Marketplace provides the sort of sensory overload and culture shock untraveled Occidentals have been trained to expect from the frenzy of modern Japan. The local branch of this Japanese superstore houses a cosmetic counter, bookstore, china shop, travel agent, bakery, and a liquor store with an addling array of sakes. You can spend hours wandering the wide aisles of the spotless supermarket, eyes glazing over at the rows of mysterious products in brightly colored packages. The fish department is an excellent source for unusual species and sashimi-grade seafood, and the produce section yields consistently fresh (and often pricey) fruits and vegetables with some really uncommon finds—it's the only place I know where you'll (occasionally) see fresh wasabi root. The food court presents a singular opportunity to experience the varieties of Japanese fast food locally. The sushi counter, with its plethora of prepackaged rolls, reflects the populist origins of raw fish and rice as fast food for travelers rather than the rarefied restaurant meal we've come to pay dearly for. Kayaba specializes in bowls of udon and soba noodles; another stand, Santoka Ramen, serves the long tentacular noodles in salt-, soy-, or miso-flavored broths. The choices can be baffling, so each stall helpfully displays shiny plastic but not unappetizing models of each dish. —Mike Sula

Renga-Tei

3956 W. Touhy | 847-675-5177

$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH: MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY

Though some find Renga-Tei lacking in atmosphere, I thought the rooms were nicely appointed, with a clean, Japanese sense of design. The menu includes items not seen in most Japanese restaurants: sanma (mackerel pike), unusual noodle-dish ingredients like salmon roe, and even Calpico (the yogurt drink). Don't miss the dinner sets that are on the specials board as you enter the restaurant; they include side dishes like gomae (spinach with sesame dressing), sunomono (cucumber salad), and hiya yakko (a chilled tofu dish) along with a main entree. The miso soup is wonderful. Though not quite on par with Katsu, Renga-Tei is excellent for the money. —Keith Matsumoto

Shabu House

8257 W. Golf, Niles | 847-470-1700

$$

asian, JAPANESE | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

If, as some claim, Genghis Khan truly invented the hot pot as a practical way to feed his screaming hordes, he couldn't possibly have envisioned the day that people would sit on chairs and not share. Do you hate it when your pals dunk clams into your carefully balanced beef broth? Grossed out by your baby brother's baby corn bobbing around in the soup? Well, you're in luck: Shabu House individualizes this traditionally communal eating experience. Inside a brightly lit strip-mall storefront—about as far as you can get from a yurt on a windswept steppe—a long, oval open-ended bar is set with sunken aluminum pots, each with its own adjustable heating element, slotted spoon, and mesh strainer. The protocol and lore of the hot pot is ardently described on the menu, which is dense with a confusing number of options, but the servers are extraordinarily attentive—worried for you, even—if you don't happen to be Asian. To get you started, they arrive with a pitcher of chicken or seaweed stock and an optional saucer of minced kimchi. The stock goes into the pot, and from there the method is simple: prime your roiling broth with chile paste or salt, add veggies and starch, swish the thin slices of prime or marbled beef or seafood in the broth, dip it in one of four sauces, and eat. Near the end, when the broth has absorbed the essence of all that's bathed in it, you can throw in a portion of rice for "risotto." The attention to detail here is particularly appealing, given the affordability of the experience—noodles and terrifically plump, fresh dumplings are house-made, plates of protein and plants arrive artfully stacked and arranged, a tiny slice of citrus floats in each saucer of apple ponzu sauce. But there's a lot of work involved in this kind of eating—and at this place you can't just abdicate the development of your hot pot to another, more energetic diner. The toil might be better mitigated if BYOB was permitted, but no dice, soldier. Come prepared to cook. —Mike Sula

Sunshine Cafe

5449 N. Clark | 773-334-6214

$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | lunch: sunday; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Noodle dishes—from nutty buckwheat soba to chewy wheat udon—dominate the menu at this home-style Japanese restaurant. Most come swimming in large bowls of broth with generous servings of vegetables or meat. A brief selection of equally impressive main courses includes sukiyaki, shrimp tempura, and a pleasantly sweet chicken teriyaki. Prices are rock-bottom—many consider it one of the best bang-for-your-buck places in Chicago. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Tampopo

5665 N. Lincoln | 773-561-2277

$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

Daniel Choe named his place after Juzo Itami's noodle western, whose eponymous heroine is named for the Japanese word for dandelion. Like that woman's ramen shop, Choe's restaurant is bright and earnest; unlike her, he offers more than just three different kinds of noodles—there are 14 types of ramen, udon, and soba, plus donburi, bento boxes, sushi, and nearly two pages of traditional Japanese appetizers and entrees on the menu. Choe has a deft touch with the deep fryer, rendering delicate items like panko-fried oysters and halibut tempura light and greaseless. He handles artistic presentations—like a startling whole squid, sliced then reassembled, that looks capable of wrestling down a submarine, or steamed shrimp dumplings in wasabi-infused wrappers—just as easily as home-style dishes like good ol' sukiyaki, or agedashi tofu, fried bean curd with ginger in a minced radish sauce with tiny mushrooms and soybeans. —Mike Sula

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