The big news in Chicago sushi over the last month was the abrupt departure of itamae B.K. Park from Arami, which since its opening has been regarded by most who think about these things as one of the best—if not the best—sushi joints in town. After Park left, Arami quickly retooled and reopened, but it's still too soon to tell if it will maintain the high standard he set.*
Amid all this drama it might have been easy to miss the arrival of Kai Zan just under a mile west on Chicago. Twins Melvin and Carlo Vizconde—late of the Kamehachi chain and Lincoln Park's Kyoto—opened this tiny BYO in early June, and its renown is snowballing.
I'm not going to say it's matched the erstwhile Arami in exquisiteness—for one thing, the rice they're using isn't as fine. But they are putting together some really nice stuff, including a modest and thoughtful selection of specialty sushi with none of the cream cheese and Krab-stuffed hoo-ha that passes for makimono on nearly every block these days.** I mean stuff like the pictured orange rush sushi, two pieces of lightly cooked salmon-enrobed scallop, topped with a subtle, not-too-sweet citrus glaze.
Or below, a flaming tuna toll: seared tuna-topped avocado, shrimp tempura, and spicy tuna makimono. You can see from the scallop roll next to it that the standard makimono are dainty, but they're fresh and relatively inexpensive—$4 for the usual range of seafood plus vegetarian items like oshinko, fried tofu, avocado, and cucumber (sashimi is $3 per piece).
There's a set of bite-size lava-rock-charred bits like miso-marinated cauliflower or chicken thigh in yakitori sauce for $3-$4, a handful of pricier entree-size teppanyaki, and some pretty appealing appetizers, like the tonkatsu shiso age (below)—roulades of deep-fried breaded pork and shiso leaves—and a small cup of superfresh and creamy cool house-made tofu, with okra bits and bonito flake.
It's a worthy little spot—and getting harder and harder to get into.
Kai Zan, 2557-1/2 W. Chicago, 773-278-5776
** Well, there was a cream cheese and jalapeno "unagi popper" when I visited, but it was just a special. And the "escolar pearls"—tiny lightly charred rice balls with soy-dressed fish feature a rare judicious use of truffle oil.