The Gist: Matthias Merges, the Executive Chef of Charlie Trotter’s from 1996-2010 and the man responsible for my one excellent meal there reinterprets Japanese Street Food in the up and coming Logan Square area.
The Why: To be fair, I hadn’t planned to go to Yusho – not until the man who invited me to Next – El Bulli suggested it. Sure I’d heard good things from people I trust, but I already had reservations at EL Ideas that evening…but then again, when has that stopped me – particularly under the guise of ‘sharing a few plates’ with someone who not only likes Japanese cuisine but also has spent time in Japan and thus knows far more about it than I?
The Reservation: Accepted via the phone or through the restaurant’s own proprietary online system. As we were dining at 5:00pm on a Saturday the reservation was easily secured and although only the tasting menu is usually the only offering at the chef’s counter a simple request to sit there and order a la carte was honored as no one else had booked it during that time.
The Space: Prior to this visit I’d not spent much time in Logan Square and as I arrived nearly thirty minutes early for dinner I now know why – I walked around for the full thirty minutes and found nothing but older, relatively well maintained homes and a school. The restaurant itself sits on a street corner with simple signage, but once you get inside the décor is actually quite impressive with the space long and narrow with booths and a low bar with stools up front, tables in a larger dining room in back, plus a chef’s counter with high backed stools overlooking the entirety of the preparation area in between. Lighting is mostly soft overhead spotlights and hanging lamps of varied colors and bulb styles, plus large windows up front flooding the area with light during our meal. Music is light and nondescript, kitchen noise is minimal, and the use of reclaimed wood, concrete, brick, and exposed ceilings gives the room a comfortable minimalistic feel while colors and textures prevent it from being another nondescript ‘Japanese’ restaurant.
The Service: Competent, pleasant, and efficient with our primary server, Yolanda, handling the vast majority of the process including presenting the menus and daily specials, making recommendations, delivering dishes with excellent descriptions, and clearing plates. Admittedly there are some limitations to being served from behind as we were sitting at the bar and perhaps this could have been circumvented if we’d had ordered the tasting/omakase thereby allowing the chefs to serve us directly, but either way the service was everything one could want and the pace of the meal was leisurely with dishes arriving one or two at a time, always appropriate in temperature, and with good spacing so that we never felt rushed or bored.
The Food: A la carte. Two cocktails, Seven Savories, One Sweet.
With the menu quite extensive we started with a cocktail each while making decisions. For myself, Cate’s Esters – Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, Lime, Cane Sugar, Orange, Myrrh Bitters would prove to be just my style with quite a bit of sweetness, the smooth basenotes of rum, and the interesting use of an aromatic I most identify with incense that rose to the palate and sinuses but was virtually undetectable on smelling the drink.
Chicken Skin – Japanese Mustard, Garlic, Togarashi: Jon’s first choice as he was familiar with similar dishes from his visits to Japan. According to him, not quite traditional in that those overseas are more meaty I have to admit that for a dish I wasn’t sure I would like since I don’t fancy mustard or significant heat I actually really enjoyed the one skin I tasted – crisp and salty with the heat and garlic acting to level out the mustard.
2x Fried Chicken – Kanzuri, Matcha, Lime: Another choice of Jon’s, served up on a Japanese newspaper, and a very logical follow-up to the skin both in terms of the animal and in terms of the flavor. Featuring two breasts, split and fried not once but twice, to call this chicken ‘extra crispy’ would be an understatement as the crunchy coating rife with spices gave way to moist, tender flesh that was almost ‘soft’ in comparison, though in reality perfectly brined, cooked, and full of flavor. With a light tinge of flavor from both the acid in the lime and the bitter matcha, the real wallop of bonus flavor was the Kanzuri, a sauce I’d never experienced before that Yolanda explained was ‘hot and sour’ – an understatement to be sure as a little went a long way.
Grilled Hama-Hama Oyster with Cider, Yuzu, Sake: One of the daily specials, this was ordered by Jon and although I was offered a bite I declined. Reportedly very good I will note that I’ve never seen an oyster quite so large and considering the events of December 30th 2011 I remain a bit guarded about raw or lightly cooked oysters served on the half shell.
Salmon Roe Takoyaki, Chile, Bonito, Scallions: Perhaps Yusho’s most talked about dish, and the start of a quartet of fantastic plates that epitomized the concept of umami this plate featured four golf ball sized pockets of flour packed with briny salmon eggs that literally burst with flavor on each bite. Texturally not dissimilar from a hushpuppy with the crispy golden exterior and toothsome yet creamy insides the flavor profile of the dish was only enhanced by the briny shaved mackerel while scallions and chili oil added another dimension of flavor depth. Apparently more commonly made with octopus as opposed to the roe I’ll definitely seek the authentic version in the future, but all things being equal I find it hard to believe it can compare to such a stunning dish.
Cod Chawanmushi, Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake: Arriving simultaneously with the eel as we continued to swoon over the Tokayaki, this dish would be the first of the evening where the form was quite different from what I’d expected, and yet it would still prove to be stunning as the crisp pieces of tempura-fried cod cheek were suspended via skewer over sweet custard flecked with crunchy toasted ginkgo nuts and fibrous shiitake mushrooms. Ever a fan of custards and puddings I personally felt this to be one of the strongest dishes of the evening and amongst the best Chawanmushi preparations I’ve experienced.
Eel Brandade, Hominy, Wasabi Mustard: The second of a dynamic duo, my second salt cod preparation of the day, and again vastly different than I’d expected in a very welcome way with the supple and sweet eel sliced into thin strips and rested over fried balls of creamy brandade that burst with a savory cream not dissimilar to the Takoyaki. Clearly not satisfied with a pairing that was already delicious, Merges instead upped the ante on this dish with the addition of griddled hominy at the base plus a dash of intensely spiced mustard (which was thankfully applied sparingly) creating a bowl of contrasts in flavor, texture, and spice that all came together masterfully in the mouth.
Foie Gras – Kabocha Squash, Kombu, Honey: Obviously if there was foie gras on the menu I was going to order it and as is usually the case, it proved to be the highlight of the meal as a surprisingly large slice of liver arrived crisp and caramelized on the exterior, supple and unctuous within, and flanked with an inspired composition of tender squash, crispy seaweed, and a liberal drizzle of honey plus bee pollen. Again an exploration of textures and flavors but here excelling to even higher highs in terms of sweet/savory balance it was the best foie gras of the trip by a substantial margin.
Logan Poser Ramen – Crispy Pigs Tail, Hen Egg, Cucumber, Thai Chile: Seeing that we were sharing all of our items the chef asked if we’d prefer this dish portioned out for two and thankful for the suggestion (plus the extra egg) we watched the dish being composed as we enjoyed the foie gras – a slow and careful process to be sure but one well worth the wait as both bowls arrived piping hot with the broth rife with the flavors of pork and the sea. Again utilizing a skewer to support the crisply fried deboned pig tail above the broth and balancing the brine with the creamy egg, crunchy cucumbers, and masked heat of the Thai chili this was a bit hearty so later in the meal, but delicious just the same.
Black Sesame, Coffee Sauce, Crunchy Business: Having been told by my friend Rich (who I’d be seeing in less than an hour at EL Ideas) that I “must” order this dish, well, I had to order this dish…and in the end I was very glad I did as the rich Black Sesame soft serve topped with salty caramel infused with Arabic coffee and a thin waffle described sesame brittle was far more than your typical boring ice cream. Beginning first with the ice cream – think sweetened soy sauce with a sort of cocoa undertone brought to a peak by the bitter/sweet balance of the coffee sauce – it was outstanding and far more impressive than that at Brushstroke only a few weeks prior. Next, adding texture, was the ‘crunchy business’ – a combination of the shattering waffle tuille, ground white and black sesame seeds, and house made sixlets. Generally not one to be wowed by Japanese desserts, Rich was right – if you go, you must order this.
The Verdict: You should go…you should probably go with another person…you probably should not have dinner plans afterwards…and you should slide up to that bar and either place yourself in the chef’s hands or order everything on the menu that sounds good because between a gourmand with minimal experience with Japanese cuisine and one with plenty we both left Yusho happy, sated, and impressed for $65/pp including drinks making Yusho a lock for Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, but with food, service, and setting certainly qualifying for at least a single star in the Red Guide.