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During the course of my interview with Japan-obsessed cook Scott Malloy yesterday, we got to talking about what Japanese restaurants we liked, especially in the suburbs around O'Hare, where there are a number of authentic ones serving the employees of Japanese companies based near the airport. Many were ones we both knew, but his absolute favorite was one completely unknown to me—though, as it turns out, he heard about it from a mutual friend (thank you, Charlotte Tan). It's Kurumaya, a little Japanese spot in Elk Grove Village which you'd never stumble upon even on a visit to Mitsuwa Market—it's truly hidden, tucked away in a strip mall located deep in the suburb.
Malloy says he likes it because you'll find the simple, authentic, and relatively unglamorous things you won't find anywhere else, like forofuki, a chunk of daikon root simmered in dashi broth until it's almost fall-apart tender. So we arranged to meet there, along with his wife, Becky, who's the office manager at Grace.
It's a small restaurant with two rooms—a dining room with a small sushi bar (Malloy says they've never had the sushi), plus a tatami mat room off to the side where we can see some Japanese businessmen seated behind a partial curtain. "We've never been on that side," Malloy admits. The owner stands behind the sushi bar, observing all, while his wife and another traditionally clad server buzz around the tables. The restaurant is about three-quarters full on this weekday night, with a pretty even divide between Japanese and non-Asian customers.
Becky says that if you want the really Japanese stuff, "The secret is to order the shiokara," squid fermented in squid guts. "I'm not a fan, but he likes it. It's too salty for me." (I've had it before—when it was a Key Ingredient.) Even after looking through the menu and recognizing some things, I have no idea what to order, so they hand me a fat little book, like a photo album, as an alternative to the printed menu.
It's a book of all the dishes, hand illustrated by the owner in colored pencil. It's an almost magical artifact that feels like a Victorian's little book of nature drawings, maybe with a touch of the obsessiveness of Henry Darger illustrating the adventures of the Vivian Girls thrown in. I am instantly in love with this restaurant too.
But choosing so overwhelms me that Scott and Becky select a lineup of what they consider Kurumaya's greatest hits, starting with the shiokara (which is not noticeably better on try number two) and some squid bits in pickled wasabi, which I like a lot:
It's an impressive tour of modest Japanese food—no premium ingredients, just beautiful care taken with each one, from the atsuage, which is like a grilled bonito flake sandwich, to the salty, savory beef tongue. At the end of a feast, which I think winds up at all of about $60 for the three of us (no liquor), I ask Scott what he likes about this meal and this restaurant.
"I love this place. I want to live here," Malloy says. "If I had a job with three consecutive days off, I'd come here and say, 'I want to learn, I'll work for free.' I feel like so many people go and stage at Noma or all these big places, but you could learn a lot from a place from a little place where they've been doing the same thing for years and years. I mean, it looks cool on your resume that you staged at Noma, but what did you do? You picked herbs that you have no idea what the names are and that only grow in Denmark. I'd rather come here, not even put it on my resume, and take away what I learned here.
"Ultimately, fine dining is for the few. This kind of place is based off what they ate because they had to. They didn't eat beef tongue because they wanted to, but because they had to—and they learned how to make it delicious. That food is way more interesting to me."
Kurumaya, 1201 E. Higgins Road, Elk Grove Village, 847-437-2222.