Thursday, May 3, 2012
Mrs. Hackknife and I found ourselves with a plethora of work and family-related events this past Saturday. One party (a first Communion/birthday combo) had to be passed on, while another (3-year old birthday party) was skipped due to Hackknifette's late-hour cold, leaving us with an early afternoon bowling retirement party downtown and a work karaoke gala far out in the suburbs later that evening (rest assured that there was no singing on my part). In between, however, was something rarely occurring these days: a few hours alone in the city to dine sans progeny at the location of our choosing (within reason, of course - Alinea probably wouldn't have been able to host us, for example). Mrs. Hackknife has been jonesing lately for yakitori (a type of Japanese bar food whose exact nature is debatable, as we'll see in a minute) and, as it turns out, Chicago now happens to offer a handful of these places (it's something of a trend at the moment). I'd been reading a bunch of positive buzz about Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie) lately, a newer restaurant in Avondale by head chef Matthias Merges (Charlie Trotter's right-hand man for many years finally making a go of it on his own) claiming to serve yakitori-inspired dishes and was excited to find out that they could seat us at 5pm, giving us enough time to still make it to our evening event relatively early. So, after (badly) bowling a few frames and throwing back a couple of cold ones at the retirement bash, we detoured off the Kennedy on our way to the 'burbs to get us some Yusho.
When we arrived, the missus and I were in fact the very first table to be seated, watching an army of casually-dressed staff (which we appreciated, given that we were both in jeans) prepare for the dinner service. The overall vibe was more saloon than club, with upbeat Japanese pop/punk songs on the sound system and lots of brown wood in lieu of black lacquer in the decor. When our waitress came by to get drink orders, we opted to go non-alcoholic by trying a couple of the house's recommended dry drinks - I quite enjoyed my homemade pineapple soda and Mrs. Hackknife sipped on a more-complex-than-you-could-imagine artisanal tonic (subtly infused with ginger and mystery botanicals) before eventually also yielding to the pineapple soda's allure. As can happen when one visits a small plates eatery these days (see Vera), everything on the menu looks worth exploring (damn you, one-chambered stomach), but sanity forced us to narrow our selections down to a brief 6 or 7 of the most heralded offerings that I'd gathered from various press sources.
We started with crunchy sheets of chicken skin (see photo above), coated with whole grain mustard, garlic, and togarashi (a Japanese blend of hot pepper spices), which were delicious, if not quite as mind-blowing as I first envisioned. Thoughts ran wild in my head about how this dish might have been prepared - I'm guessing that the skins had to be pressed flat for some period of time and heated (fried? dehydrated?) to get the crispy, yet not greasy, texture. In any case, for obvious health reasons, I'm sure it won't be making a regular appearance in the Commissary anytime soon. Next up was one of the evening's off-menu specials, a giant Hama Hama oyster (fished out of Hood Canal near Puget Sound in Washington State and known for its large size/cucumber flavor) topped with shallots, ginger, and lardo that Mrs. Hackknife and I fought over for the last bits.
The oyster was followed up with another special, the kimchi-topped pork belly seen above. This was in my opinion the best dish of the night and I found myself uttering an unprintable expletive upon consumption, with the sweet kimchi serving as the perfect foil to the rich pork, which had an amazing crispy exterior, yet soft and creamy interior. Slightly less-expletive worthy, but a still tasty plate of takoyaki (a Japanese dumpling popular in and around Osaka) luxuriously stuffed with salmon roe and topped with bonito flakes, scallions, and chiles arrived next. There were no leftovers.
The steamed short rib buns (see above) we received after the takoyaki were the source of some controversy. Topped with peanuts, pickles, jalapenos, and cilantro, I thought they were delicious, while Mrs. Hackknife wasn't quite as enthralled, both for the bun texture (chewier than she'd like) and the fact that this was technically a Korean dish (to say nothing of the kimchi we had earlier). In fact, she argued that several of the dishes we ate didn't conform to the definition of "yakitori" as she interprets it (based on her 3-month residency in Tokyo), which is strictly limited to meat, fish, or vegetables grilled and served on a skewer. I have a feeling that this debate will probably continue back at the Commissary until such time as I can identify a place in town that prepares their yakitori in such a manner (if you know of one, please feel free to share).
Our final savory course was the twice-fried chicken pieces shown above, glazed with kanzuri (a yuzu-based chile paste) and lime, and finished with some matcha (green tea powder), served with spicy dipping mayo. Although the plate looked good, it actually fell pretty flat, the evening's biggest disappointment. I found the chicken to be somewhat dry/chewy and we probably could have done with only 2 pieces instead of 4. This was clearly an unfortunate misstep.
Of course, we were able to rally to consider some interesting dessert options. My bowl of kalamansi (a very tart Japanese citrus fruit) custard with peanut cake and peanut brittle (see photo above) was off-the-charts fantastic, one of my favorite desserts this year (pretty high praise considered it contained no chocolate). Mrs. Hackknife ordered the homemade mochi, perfectly chewy and slightly blackened (think campfire marshmallow, but more toothsome), served with a couple of dark chocolate smears, also very good (although I still liked mine better).
By all accounts, we had a very good (at times outstanding) meal at Yusho with some very unique dishes that we're not likely to find elsewhere around here. Yet why did we leave feeling a little disappointed? Clearly, Mrs. Hackknife (although she enjoyed most of the food) was bummed about not getting the yakitori that she craved (and continues to crave). Speaking for myself, I think that the hype was just too great and I (maybe unfairly) was expecting a little more, especially given the unimpressive fried chicken, which was supposed to be a standout. Regardless, I'd be happy to return for the pork belly, peanut cake dessert, and any number of other plates that we didn't get to try the first time around...