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Raw Fish Round Up
Josannah Birman

Sunset Maki at Butterfly
Photo: Josannah Birman
Maybe it’s the exotic seaside origin, the sharp knives, or the long sleek bars, but there is something undeniably sexy about sushi. So how did this racy culinary tradition make its way to the city of broad shoulders and broader cuts of steak? The story began with Marion Konishi who must have shocked her neighbors when she swung open the doors of Kamehachi of Tokyo in 1967. According to the current owner, Giulia Sindler (Konishi’s granddaughter) it was the first sushi restaurant in Chicago. Kamehachi, or “eight turtles,” which represents long life and good luck is appropriate for this Old Town institution that has survived for more than 35 years, an eternity in Chicago dining time. Originally, Kamehachi was across the street from Second City, but in 1994 it relocated a couple of blocks south, remaining in the neighborhood that Konishi loved. Mobs of sushi-craving stars, from highbrow (Itzhak Perlman) to lowbrow (Carmen Electra), have flocked to Kamehachi. The scene has changed, but Konishi’s brainchild is still thriving amidst a plethora of new competition.

The idea of eating raw fish may horrify Midwesterners who are accustomed to heartier or at least cooked fare. Sushi virgins should take it slow and start out by ordering the safest (and blandest) choice on the menu—the California roll. If it’s named after a sunny state, it can’t be too bad, right? So stop fumbling around with those chopsticks, pick up a fork, and dig in. On the other end of the spectrum, Chicago sushi snobs are searching for the freshest fish, the friendliest service, and prices that won’t give their wallet too strenuous a workout. Whether it’s sipping sake at Midori Japanese Restaurant, people watching at Mirai, or savoring a sunset maki at Butterfly Sushi Bar and Thai Cuisine, they’ve seen and eaten it all. If you fall into either category, or somewhere in between, this guide to the city’s sushi options is just what you need to fuel your obsession. In order to avoid menu-related migraines, we will start with the basics. The word sushi only refers to sticky rice but has become synonymous with raw seafood prepared with a Japanese flair. Restaurants often divide items into two different categories; maki and nigiri. Maki-mono is a combination of fish and/or vegetables in a layer of rice and wrapped in nori, a sheet of dried seaweed. The ingredients are rolled into a cylinder and cut into smaller pieces. There are endless variations of this style, including the extra thick futo-maki or a hoso-maki, which is thinner than the standard maki-mono. The clever uramaki is prepared inside out, which means the seaweed is concealed by rice. Much like a resourceful mom crushing up medicine in her child’s spaghetti, ura-maki was created in the 1970s for Americans who were reluctant to bite directly into seaweed. The other main category of sushi is nigiri—rice topped with filets of raw or cooked seafood.

The second the plate hits the table it brings a new set of mysteries. You will likely see a little green lump of wasabi commonly known as Japanese horseradish. Use it sparingly, unless you are fond of having tears stream down your cheeks as you chug ice water in an attempt to stop the burning. Wasabi is a plant grown primarily in Japan where it is grated and used to compliment raw fish. However, most places unfortunately serve “western wasabi,” a powdery mix of mustard, American horseradish, and food coloring. Try to get the real stuff if you can. Then there is the pickled ginger. This sweet garnish has earned its keep at the sushi bar by cutting the heat of wasabi and acting as a palate cleanser. Miso or soy bean paste is used to create the traditional soup of Japan; the rich broth often includes pieces of tofu and seaweed. And don’t forget to take the edge off with some sake, a tasty alcoholic beverage made from rice.

Chef Roberto Piña at Midori
Photo: Josannah Birman
Three cultures in one roll
Midori Japanese Restaurant has flown under the radar for twenty years, tucked away in the Korean corridor on Bryn Mawr Avenue—a tiny mecca of coffee shops, stores, and eateries. You may be wondering what a Japanese restaurant is doing around these parts, but oddly enough it is owned by Bonnie Ma, a Korean American. She attributes Midori’s success to maintaining a traditional Japanese ambience and not getting caught up in every new sushi trend. The affable owner can often be found relishing a meal and chatting with loyal customers, such as Roberta Miller. Miller has been hooked on Midori since it opened and proudly informs newbies that “it’s like a family here.”

The sound of gently flowing water from a rectangular fountain framed by dark wood, greets people as they enter. A kimono clad server promptly seats you and brings a steaming hot wash cloth. Brightly colored fish line the walls, and just as you drift into a relaxing mood a loud commercial blares out of a speaker and jolts you back to reality. Then the elegant server reappears and a parade of small white plates begin to flow onto your table. Yellow radishes, cucumbers, and a mushroom and green bean combo topped with a spicy red sauce, activate your appetite. Next you’ll encounter the earthy aroma of miso soup, but beware—it may leave you searching the broth for the three tiny pieces of tofu hiding beneath the surface. The food comes out at a rapid fire pace while Roberto Piña, a Mexican American, smiles and talks with his hands beneath a carved wooden sign that says “Sushi Chef Robert.” He wears a black and white kimono and alternately converses with regulars in English while directing his crew in Spanish. The Roberto “special maki” is all the rage here. It’s a massive concoction of shrimp tempura and snow crab meat, and like everything at Midori, it’s sprinkled with a spicy red sauce. The roll is solid and the flavors work well together, but sushi connoisseurs may decide the ingredients could be fresher.

But the reasonable prices ($20 per person, plus drinks) and the friendly atmosphere makes Midori worthwhile. In fact you get the feeling that most diners are long-time regulars. On the way out, a twenty-something guy wearing a Cubs hat beams, “Thanks Roberto, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Indeed, sometimes you want some unagi where everyone knows your name.

Photo: Josannah Birman
You can’t eat Louis Vuitton purses
A far cry from the cozy hospitality at Midori, Mirai is a well known hot spot. Don’t be fooled by the hype, because half the people recommending it, have probably never even eaten there. Upon arrival, the snooty staff does not even attempt a friendly greeting as you inquire about reservations or ask for a table. An unapologetic hostess says that you’ll have to wait more than 45 minutes to be seated with reservations. They pressure you to go up, “relax,” and have a drink in the overcrowded bar. Upstairs, hunger sets in and you frantically look around for sustenance. That’s when you consider munching on one of the overpriced handbags that jab your shoulders and ribs every time you hear the clatter of high heels stampede by.

When you finally do get a table, you are close enough to your dining neighbors to clearly hear “so what exactly do you do?” from a woman struggling with the awkwardness of a first date. The service is adequate and the selection is limited to the bare bones sushi basics. The salmon teriyaki and miso soup are a nice contrast to the icy factorylike atmosphere, but if you are on a search for a killer maki roll, you would be better off heading to the grocery store. The ingredients taste fresh, but the sushi is unimaginative and lackluster. Skip the dessert and get out of this yuppie trap as quickly as possible. You’ll leave hungry and regretting the $60, not including liquor, a party of two will spend on a meal. The next time someone whispers sweet nothings about Mirai in your ear, you will know exactly what to tell them. Mend your wounds by heading over to Butterfly on Grand Avenue, where you will find a smaller, but much better option.

Butterfly Sushi Bar
Photo: Josannah Birman
Fly high without drama
This long narrow restaurant works wonders with a color that evokes images of fiery sunsets and fluttering monarchs. Orange walls are decorated with a wavy panel of thin wood in a lighter tone and curvy light fixtures in variations of Butterfly’s favorite hue hang above the small sushi bar. While the main draw is the excellent fish, the eatery also offers Thai cuisine. Even better, it’s BYOB, so make sure to bring a nice bottle of sake with you.

For those who can’t resist a weekend visit, the frantic atmosphere may be overwhelming. But don’t worry, that
table of frat boys who just graduated into the professional world won’t bite. Sip the luscious wine or soothing sake that you brought, and get ready for a tasty meal. Start out with the “sunset roll,” which boasts shrimp tempura nestled in sticky rice and topped off with salmon and thinly sliced mango. It arrives on a wooden board decorated with drizzles of spicy mayo and will either simply look like a sunset or if you’re lucky it will appear as a snaking dragon. Velvety salmon and mango massage your palate while you are occasionally
refreshed by the crispness of the shrimp tempura in this sensational roll. If your appetite is in overdrive, the Godzilla roll will make you wish you had worn looser pants. Truly a force to be reckoned with, this mixture of
shrimp tempura, scallions, cream cheese, and avocado is the stuff maki-mono dreams are made of. You’ll walk out the door in a sushi induced euphoria and not even think about the $50 that you and your dining partner left on the table.

Surreal sushi
If you’re an adventurous diner with piles of cash to burn, enterprising restaurateurs have pushed the sensual and scientific limits of your sushi imagination to grab your business. At Heat, where macabre meets freshness, you can watch your entree swim around before the staff pulls it out of the tank, kills it, and prepares your meal. The regular pre-fix menus range from $45-$100 and the “fresh kill” option will add another $35 to your bill. Kizoku Sushi and Lounge created media chaos when it introduced “body sushi,” which is known as nyotaimori in Japanese. Having an almost naked woman be your platter for an all you can eat sushi buffet “only” costs $150 per person. Meanwhile, mad scientist and chef, Homaro Cantu cooks up, or rather, prints up “edible paper sushi” at Futurist-inspired Moto which offers a variety of different foods. It is not currently available, but if you order the Grand Tour of Moto for $165, you can try nitro sushi, which is topped with dehydrated nori powder instead of rolled in traditional nori sheets. So hungry you could eat the menu? This is the spot for you, because once you place your order you’ll be encouraged to munch on your edible paper menu. Fresh kill, naked flesh, and paper were not associated with Chicago sushi when Kamehachi of Tokyo opened in 1967. But each pioneer follows the lead of its predecessor and there seems to be limitless possibility for new interpretation of this cuisine. Whether its skyscrapers or sushi, Chicago takes its ventures to the extreme, so who knows what may be next for this ancient Japanese art. Stay tuned.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Butterfly Sushi Bar and Thai Cuisine Mirai
Kamehachi Moto

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