In the three years since sushi specialist Macku Chan took over the old Erwin space in Lincoln Park, he hasn't had much luck channeling the longevity of that pioneering restaurant, a onetime breeding ground for chefs including Paul Kahan and Mindy Segal. First there was Vu Sua, a French-Vietnamese fine-dining fiasco that saw Chan serving fried cod with chocolate sauce and strawberries. Then came Macku Signature, an adjunct to his eponymous sushi joint, where he'd perform feats of insanity like rolling smoked salmon with Laughing Cow cheese. Now there's Lure Izakaya, a reboot of his brother Kee's spacy, short-lived but likable Chinatown boite, also called Lure.
Anyone who remembers the disturbingly anatomical abalone with foie gras at Kee's late Mulan knows that Macku isn't the only member of the Chan clan guilty of unreasonable excess. The brothers did wondrous things with sushi at Mirai and Heat, but here they've taken a surprisingly straightforward approach to Japanese drinking food. Even the moderately creative MO Chan took with then-consulting chef Eric Aubriot at Lure 1.0 has been scrubbed away in favor of clean, mercifully minimal, mostly shareable little plates that, unlike many of the brothers' previous endeavors, allow the superior quality of their product to show.
Take the sanma, a needlelike, autumnally harvested mackerel pike, laid to rest on the plate with nothing but a lemon wedge, its belly neatly folded open to reveal grill-kissed crispy skin on oily, fully fishy flesh. It's one of those salty, depths-of-the-sea fishes that begs for liquid assistance as you chopstick the rich meat from the delicate bones.
The menu is broken down according to the nine classic Japanese cooking techniques—fried (agemono), pickled (ko-no mono), cooked in vinegar (sunomono), grilled (yakimono) like the sanma, etc—and it's important to get a good grasp on this structure from the outset. In terms of design, the large two-sided laminated document has one of the most aggravating layouts I've come across in recent times, requiring endless flipping and neck twisting to read. (You can get a sense of this on the restaurant's website, which is even more difficult to process.) But persevere and you will be rewarded with a succession of small treasures, like a lush chunk of steamed pork belly bathed in a thin, oniony sauce and topped with Asian pear, the sweetness of each tempered by the bite of raw julienned leeks. Counter it with something from the grill, like seared beef tongue fanned across the plate with nothing but a squirt of lemon. Or move on to something cold, dishes that bring into focus the brothers' ability to source magnificent seafood. Cubes of blood-red tuna are lightly marinated in kumquat and dressed with spicy togarashi and diced avocado to correspond to the fattiness of the fish. A single sweet, raw scallop bathes in soy with sesame seeds and a twig of salty sea bean for garnish.
Rich but delicate dishes predominate, like slices of barely seared salmon in a sake sauce or fatty slabs of rare seared duck breast dressed in vinaigrette—a treatment normally given to fried fish, but one that's just as appealing here.
The kitchen doesn't seem as capable of harnessing this nimbleness and delicacy when it comes to fried items. Tiny river crabs—another Chan staple—get lost in an overabundance of batter. On chunks of togarashi-dusted avocado, the batter softens and goes stale. And the texture of a baby flounder, a special, barely survived a hard fry that produced an armored exterior that destroyed the flaky interior when breached.
The fried chicken karaage, tender, crunchy nuggets bedded on a bowl of rice, comes off better, though. That excellent, firm rice also serves as the vehicle for a favorite from Lure's first incarnation: taut, sweet blue shrimp dressed in togarashi-spiked soy with a gob of mucilaginous mountain yam; it's a challenging, texturally satisfying dish I'm glad the Chans have seen fit to resurrect. A perhaps easier but no less challenging way to enjoy this fine rice is with an unadorned slab of grilled eel.
That mountain yam—Edo-period Astroglide—reappears in a bowl of soba noodles, offsetting the crunch of fried tempura batter nibs, a terrific contrast that's duplicated in the chewy udon noodles accompanied by a slab of fried tofu skin.
Dish after dish is simple, almost homey food with a richness that's easily tempered by a selection of house pickles, multicolored arrangements of intensely tart purple eggplant, cucumber, radish, daikon, and more.
Lure also offers a number of ever-changing fish specials on an iPad. I got lucky with a miso-anointed black cod cheek so ephemeral it might have been a ghost, and less so with split langoustines so overcooked that no amount of spicy mayo-based sauce could bring them back to life.
Overall this is a welcome return for Lure, but it's complicated. While there are some terrific deals on sake and a host of ambitious cocktails, they're served in an environment that inhibits the kind of conviviality you'd expect in what's supposed to amount to a pub. There is no accessible bar to speak of since its front is being used for fish storage. And what remains cuts off the window booths from the rest of the dining room, where tables are covered and sight lines broken up by weird structures that could double as bus shelters. It seems to have a chilling effect on attendance. One empty evening I could catch glimpses of Kee Chan languidly sipping beer with a buddy in front of the kitchen.
Still, I hope Lure 2.0 overcomes these liabilities and catches fire, because it's offering some of the most honest Japanese soul food in town—and certainly the best from the Chan brothers in a long time. But you don't just need food and drink for a party—you need people. v