Chicago, here comes the izakaya...

February 18, 2010

 


minchidoria from Wanoma Izakaya in Vancouver B.C.

If you've spent any time in Japan -- or Vancouver, BC, for that matter -- you've no doubt stumbled into an izakaya, or pub. Locals frequent these gastropubs for their casual atmosphere, wide selection of beer and premium sake, and of course, knockout food.

"Over the years, I've felt that Chicago's sushi and Japanese offerings were a little diluted, with a few exceptions," said Steven Song, the owner of the new Masu Sushi (1969 N. Halsted, no phone yet) slated to open the first week of March. The name comes from the wooden, cubicle cups Japanese restaurants serve their sake in. Song was the owner of Tsunami, a large sushi restaurant on Dearborn that closed last year. He's taken over the former Minnie's space in Lincoln Park, and is planning to introduce Chicago to its first true izakaya. "Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon, but that sense of the Japanese aesthetic wasn't there," said Song.

He's right. The best examples of izakayas tend to exist in the Northwest suburbs, in strip malls around Arlington Heights and Rolling Meadows (not coincidentally in the geographic shadow of the grand Mitsuwa Marketplace, where I could spend all day eating and shopping). I've been to Sankyu a couple of times, and I can tell you that it's the real deal - the specials board is written in Japanese and regulars get to keep their enormous bottles of sake and shochu stored there. The only restaurants claiming to offer that izakaya-like experience in Chicago currently‚ are Oysy, which has a couple of locations downtown, as well as the new Izakaya Hapa (a lame attempt to reverse the name of the well-known Hapa Izakaya in Vancouver - the two menus look nothing alike), in a space that's already been two different restaurants. But having been to a real izakaya in Vancouver, I can tell you that Oysy and Hapa miss the mark by a longshot. There's nothing wrong with them - they have sushi and some decent small plates - it's just that they‚ resemble almost every other Japanese sushi restaurant in town: yakitori, edamame, gomae, etc. As I sat at Hapa last night after work, perusing a menu of chicken wings, $6 yakitori skewers and edamame, I nibbled on a ridiculously lame bowl of Japanese curry, embedded with unwieldy hunks of tomato, potato and shiitake mushrooms. It was 6 p.m. and I had the entire restaurant to myself - depressing.

Izakayas are convivial places, with a bit more of a male-driven culture. They are boisterous, full of conversation, premium sake and tall bottles of Japanese beer. While they offer some raw sushi and sashimi, it's the small, cooked items that set them apart from their Japanese brethren. Song says he'll offer basic, home-style cooking, with a lot of rice bowls. Typical Japanese drinking snacks like dried salted filefish or seasoned fried anchovies, sardines or smelts will be commonplace. Grilled yakitori (skewers), braised dishes, fresh sashimi, and alcohol-soaking fried foods will round out the menu.

"Edamame is not going to cut it.‚  We really want to push the boundaries, and we feel the consumer is more accepting these days of new dishes," said Song. While his Tsunami chef -- Koichi Asano -- will run the kitchen, there will be a combination of some offal (liver, heart, gizzard) along with the basic sushi and sashimi salads that Song's Caucasian wife and her friends are clamoring for.

Some of the highlights will include tsukune -- essentially a ground chicken patty, similar to a kefta kebab, that's formed on a skewer, then seasoned with ginger. Pan-fried or grilled over charcoal, it can also be boiled in soups. Another grilled standard will be the hamachi collar, or kama. One of the more ubiquitous uses for miso -- at least since Nobu got his hands on it -- has been to use it as a barbecue glaze; miso-glazed black cod is the prime example. Asano will also use miso as a spread on grilled, firm tofu or as a marinade prior to grilling chicken.  "We'll also prepare various seasonal fish in a "shio yaki" style, which is simply salted and grilled," said Song.

Donburi -- or rice bowls -- will also play a major role on the menu. Song has liked what he's seen at Urban Belly, and will most likely offer something called oyako don -- a chicken-egg-onion rice bowl. From the fried section of the menu, there will be katsu don -- a breaded pork cutlet and egg omelet served over rice.

As for the challenge of the neighborhood, which hasn't exactly been supportive of the corner of Halsted and Armitage when it comes to food, Song thinks the combination of students, families and older professionals will be the perfect mix for his concept. He'll have the obligatory TV lodged somewhere on a wall, and is taking a cue from Phoenix in Chinatown, by offering some menus with tiny pictures, hoping to visually tempt diners with true izakaya dishes. "Educating the public is going to be our primary goal," he says optimistically.

I did a story for Public Radio International's "The World" a few years ago on izakayas in Vancouver. Here is the story to give you a much better sense for what they sound and feel like. Vancouver Izakayas