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Takashi Yagihashi has stuck to his guns in much the same way that Suzy Crofton has, but he’s also added some fresh ammunition. Like Crofton, Yagihashi came up in the fine-dining world, pulling his weight at Yoshi’s and Ambria in the nineties before striking James Beard gold at Tribute in suburban Detroit. When he returned to Chicago to open his namesake contemporary restaurant in 2007, he received heaps of well-deserved acclaim online, on the street, and in print everywhere from Food & Wine to Esquire. Heck, I named it the best new restaurant of the year in Chicago. But by the end of 2008, Takashi had fallen off my radar. Occasionally, I would pass by the snug Bucktown brownstone and think, Oh yeah, good restaurant—an oversight that says more about me than about Takashi. If local trendies ditched the restaurant, Michelin did not; Takashi received a coveted Michelin star last fall. (So did Crofton on Wells.)
But fine dining’s profit margin is skinnier than a Calvin Klein model, so Yagihashi, the son of two accountants, figured out a better way to pay the bills. First he opened a bare-bones noodle shop in Macy’s; then came Takashi’s Noodles, a cookbook showcasing his acumen with soba, ramen, and friends. “Customers came into Takashi and asked, ‘Where are your noodles?’” Yagihashi says. “I kept saying, ‘Go to Macy’s.’” One of his waiters suggested a Sunday noodle brunch at Takashi, which spawned a regular Sunday noodle dinner last November. Later this year, Yagihashi plans to open Slurping Turtle, an izakaya—essentially the Japanese equivalent of a gastropub—in River North. Talk about using your noodle.
All this enables Yagihashi to pursue his true love at Takashi: synthesizing French technique and Asian flavors into impressive fine-dining compositions. He wraps three big cylinders of moist Scottish salmon in a crispy potato layer and a slice of zucchini, tops them with olive tapenade, and plates them with a fricassee of braised white beans and intense cauliflower curry. There’s enough going on for four dishes. Same goes for the crackly-skinned roasted young pheasant with chestnut risotto, chanterelles, Jerusalem artichokes, and pearl onions—a stunner that would fit in at Everest. As for Courtney Joseph’s desserts, some are better than others. None are better than the cinnamon-sautéed apples, which include a maple-semifreddo-topped pecan shortbread, candied bacon, and a marvelous apple cider sorbet hidden beneath dehydrated apples.
The irony is that Takashi’s noodle dinners are nearly as satisfying as the regular menu, at a fraction of the cost. You’d be hard pressed to find a deeper-flavored udon in Chicago than the niku udon—sliced rib eye, scrambled egg, and fried tofu in the kind of yellowish broth that we always want chicken soup to taste like. And Takashi loads the menu with crowd pleasers such as marinated duck-fat-fried chicken and a pork-belly snack that functions as a sort of deconstructed steamed bun. Two mini masterpieces for less than $10. “It’s a totally different ball game on Sunday nights,” says Yagihashi. “We get people in T-shirts and jeans.” T-shirts and jeans? At a Michelin-starred restaurant? Things have changed, and Takashi, obviously, has changed with them.