"Have you ever had sake?" a server asked as I scanned the beverage menu. It was an early evening, early in the week at Ani, a new, modest Japanese restaurant from Ty and Troy Fujimara, the siblings who own Wicker Park's great sushi restaurant Arami (and Small Bar).
Maybe she hadn't had much opportunity to practice her spiel, or maybe the inhabitants of this pocket of Lakeview are more sheltered than I expected. The restaurant had been nearly empty on each occasion I visited. To be fair, I was there early that night—almost retiree time. But the place, situated on an increasingly bleak stretch of Lincoln that lost its CTA bus route in 2012, seems lonesome for its own reasons. Perhaps it's the lingering ghosts of Chizakaya, a more ambitious Japanese restaurant that nonetheless failed to find traction in this very same space before closing after just two years. Maybe it's the grainy, blown-up photos of Fujimara family old-timers on the walls, or maybe it's that the kitchen had no yellowtail two nights in a row. Regardless, Ani feels a bit haunted, a bit forgotten.
But it shouldn't be that way. Billed as a sibling to Arami, Ani could be very good for this neighborhood (where the most notable Japanese restaurant is the all-you-can-eat House of Sushi and Noodles), offering small but well-rounded collections of hot and cold appetizers, skewers from the robata grill, noodles, and of course sushi.
The maki mono are a little more gimmicky and overconstructed than the pristine and austere offerings at Arami, but they are by no means obnoxious. What's a little wasabi cream going to hurt when it's drizzled over sweet, delicately poached shrimp and flaky eel nuzzled together in the roll? How's a little superfluous orange segment and micro shiso leaf going to spoil the beauty of luscious, fatty salmon enveloped in Tamanishiki Super Premium Rice?
It's that California-grown grain, also served at Arami, that elevates this sushi, and other dishes at Ani, beyond the standard neighborhood chop-shop product. Each grain is distinct and plump, tangy with its seasoning, and served at the proper temperature. The best thing to eat at Arami has always been this rice, and that's true here too. It's perhaps no more enjoyable than in a generous bowl of donburi, topped with sweetly seasoned chunks of tender grilled chicken and slabs of charred vegetables, or shaved rib eye and caramelized onions, brightened with pickled daikon and ginger (the latter perhaps a bit too salty).
That shaved beef finds its way into a novel bowl of ramen, dubbed "Chitown" for its approximation of Italian beef. It's not a good soup, the house-made giardiniera and broth equally bland. But the more basic shoyu ramen is a surprisingly worthy bowl, a deep and elementally salty broth with long, firm noodles coiled around slabs of grilled pork belly and a quivering poached egg.
Among the appetizers, a melange of sauteed mushrooms is brightened with a burst of citrus and a sprinkling of nutty sesame seeds, a simple wakame salad is given new dimension with a creamy yuzu aioli, and takoyaki, one of the most mistreated Japanese street snacks, is redeemed: the griddled batter studded with chunks of octopus is neither too dry nor too gooey, sprinkled with shimmering bonito flakes and seaweed, and squirted with Kewpie mayo and sweet tonkatsu sauce.
There's a diverse sake list (plus a shorter selection of red and white wines, beers and a few whiskeys), and notwithstanding my server's offer to help, it's helpfully divided into four flavor profiles and a few uncategorized premium bottles—one from each is available by the glass.
Ani isn't breaking any new ground in the big picture. It's a lot less reverent than its older brother Arami, and a lot more accessible. It isn't aiming for anything loftier than a something-for-everyone approach to Japanese food. But if it can maintain its current level of execution, it deserves to attract more followers than it has so far.