Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

At Kitsune, Iliana Regan conjures another world

The small North Center spot is an izakaya drawing on the midwestern larder.

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Kitsune, the new restaurant from Elizabeth chef Iliana Regan, could be a set piece from The Man in the High Castle, the 1962 Phillip K. Dick alternate history in which the Axis powers have won World War II and rule over a colonized United States. (Amazon has given the novel a respectably brain-bending television adaptation, soon to enter its third season.)

Kitsune is Regan’s expression of what it would be like to open a restaurant if the Japanese had occupied Chicago for the last 70 years. It’s a place where virtually none of the servers and cooks are Asian, but where they’re serving technically faithful adaptations of Japanese bar snacks with overwhelmingly midwestern ingredients. Close your eyes, imagine the chairs filled with sake-swilling Kempetai and Japanese Imperial bureaucrats chopsticking bowls of donburi and ramen, and you’re there.

Actually, in our version of reality the oppressors haven’t discovered Kitsune (yet), so the tiny, angular corner storefront is a tight squeeze full of a more representative selection of Chicagoans, occasionally weathering gusts of wind when the front door swings open.

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Like Elizabeth, and the late, great Bunny, the Microbakery, Kitsune is a wee Regan joint of singularly enjoyable weirdness. Even though the studied and occasionally menacing woodland twee is dialed back, it’s still lurking in the shadows waiting for the right moment to surprise you. A mural depicting the restaurant’s namesake magical fox twines around the restroom walls, while smaller, three-dimensional representations of said canid—a seductive shape-shifter in Japanese folklore—dispense soy sauce at the table. Tiny ceramic rabbits hold your chopsticks as President Obama, who now seems a distant character from one of our own fairy tales, benignly smiles down from a framed portrait hanging above the bar.

There’s not much else to distract from the real heart of Regan’s project—an exploration of the intersection of Japanese culinary technique and kitchen canon, with midwestern ingredients and guided by her own idiosyncratic sensibility.

The place where that intersection comes into clearest focus is in fermented foods. With the assistance of chef Justin Behlke, bread, miso, vinegar, yogurt, and garum have all been put to rot in the service of good dishes. A selection of pickles—burdock root, mushroom, red carrot, and daikon—has been preserved with a variety of techniques, each aged into distinctly pleasurable facets of funk. So too with the thick, spongy slabs of wild-rice bread, its dough kneaded with shio koji—the fermented, mold-inoculated rice used to make sake—smeared with a pat of matcha-dusted cultured butter shaped like a fox head. A small bowl of English pea miso (peaso?) soup gently interrupts the purity of raw ribbons of hamachi laid among rubylike salmon roe in a bowl of alabaster Carolina Gold rice. On other occasions the soup might be made from fermented great northern beans, mushrooms, corn, or adzuki beans. The spirit of experimentation is encouraged in the kitchen at Kitsune, but it’s born of necessity, according to Regan; in this case the necessity of avoiding GMO soybeans.

Kitsune is about as midwestern as it gets. So the dashi infused with black garlic is the liquid medium for a gob of “tofu” made from soft milk curd, along with butternut squash poached in calamansi vinegar. Instead of snappy, translucent green strips of wakame, Kitsune’s landlocked version of seaweed salad features tendrils of rutabaga, celeriac, and carrot with bits of chewy dried squid to lend the necessary oceanic spirit. The wilted spinach dish gomae, along with Chinese broccoli, is dressed with nutty sunflower paste rather than the traditional sesame, amped as you please with fresh ginger and bonito flake to the side. The “mother and child,” a scramble of soft, wet egg and chicken thigh, is laid over chewy Minnesota wild rice rather than absorbent short white grains, one of the few cross-culinary pollinations I didn’t think quite hit the mark. That’s not to suggest I wouldn’t eat it again.

It’s inevitable that entrenched Western expectations of Japanese food will lead to some items getting lost in translation. Regan explained in an e-mail how she’s had some complaints about her okonomiyaki, the savory street pancake that we food writers refer to as “Japanese pizza” when we’re feeling lazy. Some object to the custardy texture of the just-underset batter, or the fishiness of the gently shimmering bonito flakes on top. Bollocks. This gooey, savory-sweet batter bomb, laced with Kewpie mayo and pickled ginger and griddled with crunchy cabbage, leeks, and bok choy, is a textually perfect drinking food, both absorbent and substantial, and hits all the necessary pleasure centers.

Rich, buttery seared scallops drizzled in lily-gilding soy hollandaise bring about the same involuntarily joyful paralysis, as does a small bowl of naked sea urchin gonads, just kissed with yuzu, tasting like sweet, fatty sea foam.

Regan addresses the mass ramen obsession with typical fearlessness, producing two bowls—tonkotsu and vegan—of arrestingly gothic appearance, the latter built on a scorched miso broth, with black, house-made chitarra-like noodles kneaded with ash produced from the restaurant’s leftover vegetable scraps. It’s a deeply flavorful bowl that would stand out on any other menu but somehow pales in comparison to the tonkotsu, infused before straining with charred aromatics such as leeks, ginger, garlic, and scallions, resulting in a kind of caramelized pork demi-glace thick enough to coat your spoon, along with molten egg, charred pork belly, chile paste, and leek oil.

For dessert, there’s a whiskey-glazed doughnut that compares favorably to an original Krispy Kreme; a seasonal sorbet (huckleberry at the moment) with a peculiar, almost tannic mouthfeel; and what I’m convinced will be one of the most original desserts of the year. It’s a bowl of foamy, yuzu-spiked goat’s milk yogurt topped with a satsuma mandarin orange granita sweetened with miso caramel, all concealing chewy nuggets of candied sweet potato.

An izakaya is primarily a place to drink, and Kitsune’s recently approved liquor license led to a list nearly as focused as the food menu, including a couple Japanese whiskeys, seven sakes, and a more eclectic selection of beers and wines. It isn’t quite as engaging and curious as the hybrid cuisine. How could it be? As always Regan and her team make food that fucks with expectations and forces one to expand the idea of the way things are supposed to be. I lamented the death of Regan’s Bunny, a budget-friendly entry into the chef’s otherworldly imagination. Kitsune is another opportunity to throw yourself with abandon into an alternate dimension.   v

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