5547 N. Clark
If you know Mike Ham, it's probably as Sushi Mike, a nickname he got a year ago from a loyal customer. The chef has many such customers, and they've trailed him from San Soo Gab San, the 24-hour Korean restaurant on Western north of Foster, to Hanabi in Buffalo Grove to Andersonville's Hama Matsu and now to his new home, Tanoshii, also in Andersonville. On opening night at Tanoshii in December, customers waited up to two hours for a table.
Ham's known for his improvisational skills. Devotees will tell you to disregard your menu and let the master do the choosing. Trudy Delfosse, a consultant and Web designer who lives in West Rogers Park, was one of Ham's first customers at San Soo Gab San. "For the first few visits, we'd order our favorite things off the menu," she says. "Finally, on maybe our fourth visit, Mike looked exasperated and said, 'Whatever you do, just don't order.' We agreed, and he just started putting things in front of us. These were things that you would never see on a menu anywhere. I remember he made this octopus roll--I don't usually like octopus because it's usually kind of cold and chewy--and he warmed a piece of tentacle, added his spicy sauce, rolled it up, and topped it with a mixture of chopped octopus, more sauce, and some other stuff. The thing about it is that it's a little tart, a little hot, a little sweet. . . . I thought, OK, I'm hooked."
Michael Hobaugh, a pediatrician from Oak Park, also remembers his first time with Sushi Mike. "I was with my lady friend--she's my wife now--and a friend brought us there. We were really skeptical, because we introduced this guy to sushi, so we were like, 'What does he know?' But my friend insisted, 'Don't order off the menu. Just let him do what he wants.' The next thing I know, Mike is laying out these thin slices of hamachi layered with lemon slices until it makes a strip about four feet long, and then he starts rolling it up and presents it to us, and it's this beautiful yellow rose."
Sometimes the rose is made with red snapper instead of yellowtail; sometimes it's tuna. Sometimes the lemon is replaced with avocado. "It depends on the fish," says Ham. "Every texture of fish goes with a different fruit or vegetable. People think sashimi is just a piece of raw fish, some soy sauce, and wasabi. It's not true. You don't have to use soy sauce. You don't have to use wasabi. There are things you can do with the presentation. I make rosebuds, I use tomatoes, green onions, olive oil, Italian seasoning. I have different sashimi plates with different flavors."
Ham learned the art of crafting sushi in Jacksonville in 1994. He was in his mid-20s, working as an accountant for Johnson & Johnson, and had been sent to Florida for a project that was to last a few months. He became a regular at a restaurant called Shoga, where the technique of the sushi chef, Yoshi Nakamura, amazed him. "He was totally different from anything I'd ever seen," says Ham. "For one thing, he'd use real wasabi root that he'd grind himself." Most commercial wasabi in the U.S. is diluted with horseradish. "And he cut on these certain degrees--he didn't waste anything. And he put on shows. He would juggle knives in front of the customer. Once he filleted a live fish, took the meat off of it, put it back in the water, and it was still swimming. Not many people have that level of precision.
"Finally, I said to him, 'Come on, Yoshi-san, I need to learn this.'" When simple pleading didn't work, Ham plied Nakamura with alcohol. "I bought him a lot of drinks," he says. "I bought him at least a bottle of Dewar's every three days." Nakamura ultimately relented, but with a condition: no complaining. "He was by far the strictest man I ever met," says Ham. "If I ever made any mistake, he would throw the whole plate out, in front of the customer, in front of the restaurant owner--he didn't care." After about a week of studying with Nakamura, Ham quit his accounting job. He traveled with his mentor around the country for a while, making sushi in North and South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Utah, and Illinois before they parted ways. Nakamura took a job in Russia, and Ham worked in New York for nine months. Finally he returned to Chicago, where his family lived when he was a teenager (his siblings still live in Hinsdale), and started his three-year stint at San Soo Gab San.
Further inspiration came from television. "Have you seen Iron Chef?" Ham asks. The Japanese culinary competition, where chefs race against the clock to make elaborate meals based on a main ingredient that's revealed just before they start cooking, influenced Ham's approach. "It's amazing," he says. "Those people don't even know what they're gonna get the next minute. It's just genius. Think about it: I don't know what fish is gonna be fresh every day. Imagine if someone gave you a piece of the best tuna and just said, 'Make me something.'"
Ham left Hama Matsu in September--"I wasn't getting along with the owners there," he says--and bought the new space a few blocks north with a customer turned friend, Zel Stakic. Tanoshii is on a strip of North Clark Street that's fast becoming a sushi row, with one standby (Tokyo Marina), two relatively new spots (Hama Matsu and Tanoshii), and another place on the way (Sushi Luxe, opening in mid-February). This doesn't worry Ham. "I'm not afraid of competition," he says. "I have a lot of confidence in what I do. I'm very good at it. That's a fact.
"My satisfaction comes when a customer says, 'Mike, this is phenomenal.' Or when they don't say anything, because they're eating." Before he starts improvising, Ham asks first-timers what kind of fish they like and how much they want to spend on their meal (it's usually $15-$25). "You have to listen to the customer," he says. "Before you tell a customer what you're going to make them, listen to what they have to say, what they want to eat. You cannot go wrong if you listen to what a customer is saying."
Still, Ham has some inviolable standards. "They call me the Soy Nazi," he says, then jerks my soy decanter away and shouts, "No soy for you!
"I've seen too many people abusing my fish in the soy," he says. "If you use too much soy, you don't actually get to taste the fish. If you're trying to eat healthy, why do you want all that sodium? Sooner or later, I want to remove the soy sauce altogether. I'm looking forward to that."