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Restaurant Tours: France and Japan meet in the kitchen



East meets West many ways these days, what with Nintendo buying the Seattle Mariners, but the most felicitous conjuncture is in the crossover kitchen. The idea took root in California some two decades ago, with what was then called Franco-Japanese cooking; now it's referred to more fashionably as Pacific Rim cuisine, with California being an integral part. Here some call it fusion, which reminds me of bad jazz-rock, while others call it Eurasian, though our own Eurasia restaurant never quite got its act together. Three of Chicago's best restaurants offer crossover cooking, pairing French mainly with Japanese but with other Asian styles as well.

Essentially, crossover chefs season traditional French and American foods with ginger, soy, rice vinegar, and saki or other rice wines. They may also add a classic Japanese or Asian dish to a French menu--or a special ingredient such as Asian mushrooms or Asian fish gets into the mix. Some chefs reach out to southeast Asia for lemongrass and fish sauce.

In Chicago crossover cooking probably began at the remarkable Jimmy's Place, which opened 14 years ago in an unlikely northwest-side neighborhood and rose faster than a Michael Jordan jump shot.

Jimmy Rohr worked the front of the house at some great French restaurants, including the original L'Escargot and the long-gone La Reserve. He hired chef Yoshi Katsumura right out of Jean Banchet's kitchen at Le Francais and urged him to try zesting his contemporary French dishes with the seasonings of his ancestral homeland. After a bit of experimentation, such as presenting sashimi on the menu as "Japanese style salmon" marinated in saki with graceful, elongated enoki mushrooms, and creating tuna tartare with wasabi, Japanese mustard, ginger, and scallions, Rohr says "eventually Japanese touches slipped into almost everything."

Katsumura left in 1982 to found Yoshi's Cafe. Six years and three chefs later, Jimmy came up with Kevin Shikami, who once worked under Katsumura. Now a partner, Shikami dreams up such treasures as ragout of shrimp with ginger barbecue sauce in a phyllo nest with scallions and baby bok choy surrounded with coconut cream and grilled loin of veal with saki, dry sherry sauce with ginger, scallions, shiitake mushrooms, and soy and Chinese hoisin sauce.

He cloaks shrimp, liver, and other meats in pankow, crumbs made of Japanese bread; serves lamb on a bed of goma-ae, Japanese spinach salad made with sesame; and garnishes all manner of food with ingredients such as napa cabbage, Japanese pickles, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts.

Rohr doesn't allow smoking or perfume at his place, prohibitions that help set the restrained but intimate atmosphere. This is an expensive restaurant, but during July and August Jimmy's offers a four-course anniversary special: you can pick from a wide selection for a fixed price of $39.95, a comparative steal at a place of this quality.

Meanwhile, Katsumura continues in his own direction at Yoshi's Cafe, a little Lakeview jewel whose only flaw is its relatively close quarters. Early menus were dominated by classic French dishes, though Katsumura says he always wanted to "bring more and more Oriental cooking inside the French."

The menu features a wide variety of Asian mushrooms coupled with meats and fish and a host of Japanese soba and other noodle dishes. One pasta creation is made with green tea, the way Italians work spinach into their fettuccine.

Katsumura, who is also a fish wholesaler for leading restaurants, looks for unusual seafare such as rosefish, similar to Mediterranean red mullet, which gets his own Oriental white butter sauce. Classic beurre blanc involves a reduction of shallots, wine, and vinegar into which butter is beaten. At Yoshi's the butter is flavored with a reduction of saki and soy spiked with Japanese mustard, wasabi, lemon, pepper, and ginger.

This is one of the few places where you can find blowfish on the menu, often in the form of a consomme accompanied by a grilled fin. (No, they don't serve the poisonous liver.) Blowfish stock steeped in bonita shavings and seaweed is the broth for an exceptionally delicate bouillabaisse, which features snapper and clams.

A seafood salad consists of chilled crawfish, home-smoked tuna, and mirugai, the giant clam rarely seen this far from the west coast, all soothed with a dressing of saki, mirin, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Adding a Latin fillip, Yoshi serves tuna tartare with a hint of cilantro and an Asian-spiced guacamole.

And there are classic bistro items such as duck pate paired with an ethereal chicken-liver mousse or an earthy grilled boudin blanc (a white sausage) draped with calvados cream and sauteed apple slices.

A relative newcomer to Chicago's crossover cuisine is Le Mikado, whose chef, Daniel Kelch, has a Japanese mother and American father. After training with some of the best chefs in town, including Jean Joho of the Everest Room, and traveling all over the Pacific, he was hired by Jacques Barbier, the owner of this Near North bijou. Barbier's credits include establishing the lovely La Boheme in Winnetka, a traditional French spot he sold four years ago.

I've experienced a host of fascinating meals here, including a complete Japanese kaiseki dinner composed of a dozen sparkling miniature courses. Every day yields a new surprise: take, for example, a fried egg roll filled with goat cheese and dressed with Chinese black vinegar and eggplant relish. At the same meal I also had some of the best fried calamari I've ever tasted, amplified by sweet hot chili sauce and a sesame-studded aioli sauce with yellow peppers. Kelch also treats giant, tasty greenlip mussels to a steam bath of yellow Thai curry, coconut, and basil.

While some items are straightforward Asian, such as cold Oriental noodles with spiced sesame sauce, peanuts, and scallions, others are straightforward French, such as a brace of sausages, one garlic, the other potato, grilled and served with mustard sauce and lentils, which will take you right back to the French countryside.

The composites are especially intriguing, such as a gyoza (a Japanese dumpling) stuffed with pheasant sausage and stir-fried shiitake mushrooms bathed in Chinese oyster sauce.

For a real bargain try the $16.95 prix fixe menu offering a choice of four appetizers and entrees plus dessert.

Thank all of them for giving the lie to Kipling's view that the twain shall never meet.

Jimmy's Place, 3420 N. Elston, serves lunch from 11:30 to 2 Monday through Friday and dinner from 5 to 9:30 Monday through Saturday. Call 539-2999.

Yoshi's Cafe, 3257 N. Halsted, serves dinner from 5 to 10:30 Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9:30 Sunday. Call 248-6160.

Le Mikado, 21 W. Goethe, serves dinner from 5 to 10 Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 Sunday. Brunch is served from 11:30 to 2 Saturday and Sunday. Call 280-8611.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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