Ten years ago a friend came down with cholera after eating a malevolent oyster at Katsu. It happens. Despite this unfortunate event, the unassuming sushi bar on an unfashionable far-north-side street—which closes it doors at the end of the month after nearly 30 years in the business—remained in regular rotation among my pal's favorite restaurants. That's because Katsu was the best in the city—and I'll fight anyone who says any different.
In an age of sushi glam, the now retiring Katsu Imamura was a minimalist. Sure, you might be treated to a slice of black truffle or a fleck of gold leaf gilding your nigiri, but the master didn't hide his fish behind frippery.
"Please understand Katsu does not honor requests for extra sauces and extra wasabi," read his menu. He was old-school and kept things pretty quiet. He didn't advertise, Instagram, tweet, or Facebook. But if you were a lover of great fish from out of town and you found yourself in Chicago, hungry for the sea, you'd know—or at least find out about—Katsu.
I'm in no way going to compare Katsu to Raisu, a notable and fairly new sushi spot in Irving Park in a corner location that must be haunted, having been the home of a string of restaurants that each withered briefly before dying in quick succession. Well, I'll make one comparison: like Katsu, Raisu keeps it kind of quiet.
It does, however, have a Facebook page, where usually twice a week someone posts pictures of the gorgeous, seemingly random selection of clear-eyed fish that have arrived, packed in ice, from a purveyor at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Chef Simon Liew calls this his "omakase" supply, a selection of seasonal sea creatures that make up the sashimi specials and his own sushi omakase that ranges from $50 up to "no budget."
Week to week Liew doesn't know exactly what his delivery will bring. One day it might be aji, knifejaw, triggerfish, and Hokkaido uni; another day Spanish mackerel, amberjack, bonito, alfonsino, sea bream, or cutlassfish. There's often a beauty shot of a slab of fatty otoro, the coveted bluefin tuna underbelly, as pretty as pink marble (and, due to the species' precarious hold on existence, a sight that should make people sad and angry rather than covetous and hungry). Liew is getting the goods, for better and worse.
You build connections after a decade in Chicago sushi. Liew credits Kaze Chan of Macku as the mentor under whom he learned the most. Six years ago he worked at Katsu too, and in his style you can detect the influence of all three.
Liew tells me he's all about sashimi. His unadorned maki are tightly rolled, the rice often muscling out the fish. The market demands maki, even overburderned ones, and Raisu delivers, though in more limited quantity than most. As is typical, the fish and often the rice are overwhelmed by extraneous additions or too many varieties of fish. The Tornado features unagi, hamachi salmon, and two kinds of tuna, blanketed by thick layers of cold avocado. The Inferno Dragon is loaded with white tuna, fried smoked salmon, fried jalapeños, and spicy mayonnaise.
You'd never imagine the quality of fish Liew brings in judging from these overcomplicated constructions. To hear him speak, he almost disavows them, and when you experience his florid sashimi arrangements with relatively minimally garnished fish, you see why. He arrays thinly sliced, judiciously dressed sweet Hokkaido scallops across a palm leaf, the only baroque touch a fan of lemons and apples perched in a scallop shell. Slices of pristine scarlet bonito knife across the plate sprinkled with sesame seeds and chive, with a topknot of green onion.
Like the nigiri at Macku, Liew's signature pieces are adorned with some questionable elements (yes, cream cheese). But there are plenty of more restrained options with unconventional garnishes that harmonize nicely with the fish, or at least don't get in the way of it. Sea bream is touched with fresh ginger and a single fried garlic chip; salmon with black pepper and maple butter; botan ebi with garlic, mayonnaise, and green tobiko, the shrimp's tail meat posed dramatically with its disembodied head.
There are few non-fish-related things to eat at Raisu: udon soup, chicken wings, tempura vegetables, and a surprisingly hearty miso soup, which is fine given the direction Liew seems to want to pursue. Eight Japanese whiskeys and seven sakes (and more off menu) make it easy to know what one ought to drink with the sea creatures. Still, Liew's minimally adorned fish is really the only thing you should be concerned with here. There's one legitimate comparison you can make between him and Katsu: put yourself in either of their hands and you can't go wrong. v