Rising Suns

Two new Japanese restaurants go way beyond maki with their chef’s-prerogative menus—one’s a huge hit; the other, a quiet delight

Photo: Tyllie Barbosa

The sashimi platter at Meiji boasts an exquisite array of fresh fish and seafood.

Now that every foodie in Chicago has perfected his sushi ordering skills, along comes another round of intriguing Japanese delicacies. Matsumoto in Albany Park is the first local place to tackle kaiseki-an elegant and formal progression of Japanese delicacies-since Benkay and the Hotel Nikko closed up shop back in 1997. Meanwhile, the chef at the hip and happening Meiji in the West Loop offers omakase, a chef’s-choice menu you have to reserve ahead of time. And don’t worry: both places have enough sushi and sashimi to keep you in practice.

Meiji on West Randolph has taken over the space haunted by the memory of the short-lived Grace and D. Kelly-and it’s attracting big enough crowds to avoid a similar fate. The owner, Alan Chou, sets a stylish scene: a striking granite bar near the entry; graceful bamboo stalks softening the soaring brick walls. Beyond the packed-in tables (a trend I hope to outlive) is a sushi bar backed by beautiful deep-red Brazilian steelwood paneling.

I couldn’t wait to try the omakase dinner, which is described as a “traditional Japanese seven-course meal prepared to order by executive chef Ishi-subject to availability” ($95). Pay attention to that last part; friends tried to order it on the spot one Saturday night and were told it wasn’t being offered. Not many parties order the omakase, though, which may account for why the shy-looking Chef Ishi came out of the kitchen and shook our hands before and after the meal. An industry veteran who worked in Sapporo for 15 years, he didn’t use any particularly exotic rarities in his omakase, but proved his mettle by fashioning familiar Japanese ingredients in unfamiliar and delicious ways.

While I was sipping a cold bottle of Hitorimusume Nigori Junmai ($50)-a cloudy unfiltered saké that is rich yet dry-the first course arrived. It was a wonderful chawan mushi, a traditional steamed seafood egg custard inventively served in three top-off eggshells. The egg custards, our waiter carefully explained, were dotted with minced shrimp and scallops, ginkgo nuts, sweet tree chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, and each sported separate seasoning: one with tart cherry blossoms, another mixed with cilantro, and the third with dill and yuzu zest. Delicious.

Other highlights of the omakase: a dainty sashimi presentation and black cod with miso accompanied by round half-balls of tuna and hamachi sushi. Shaved tomato and cilantro sorbet made a bracing palate cleanser before an offbeat tempura stack of oyster, avocado, and tomato (the tomato didn’t work for me) in sweet-and-sour sauce. The savory courses ended with batera-western Japanese–style square-pressed sushi-with unagi and salmon. After the apple spring roll with blueberry and yogurt sauce, I was delighted to shake hands with the chef.

On another visit I concentrated on the sushi and sashimi, which play a big role on this menu. It’s all very high quality and Meiji is not shy about pricing it accordingly. The artful sashimi platter justifies its $36 ticket with a fine assortment of pristine seafood, from the usual-flounder, yellowtail, white tuna, snapper, salmon-to ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp) and shako (tender boiled mantis shrimp), served with fresh wasabi on a small white grater. And from the nigiri list, don’t miss some of the finest uni (sea urchin) in town.

Elaborate and colorful makimono creations are also a major focus, although the menu disposes of the classics in small type: “Most common maki are available upon request.” The specialty maki are all well made and provide fine contrasts in textures and flavors. But what was with the ichigo maki filled with togarashi-flecked rice, spicy unagi (freshwater eel), masago (smelt roe), avocado, and jalapeño tempura? It would have been perfect without the lily-gilding thin-sliced strawberries placed over the spicy tuna. I had no quibble, however, with the impeccable no-rice haru maki of crumbled crabmeat, salmon, tuna, hamachi, avocado, carrot, and scallion wrapped in cucumber. And don’t miss the gunkans (open-style sushi) such as ishin, a sheet of salmon (instead of the usual nori) wrapping scallops, masago, and spicy mayo topped with scallions.

After feeding like a dolphin on all that fish-and adding an appetizer such as the excellent beef rib eye rolled around asparagus and enoki mushrooms-you might think of skipping the entrées. Think again, especially about the rare duck breast on braised leeks with two sauces: spicy orange and star anise soy. And desserts are no afterthought, either, not with creations like green tea mille-feuille, layers of green tea mousse piped between honey-butter pastry crisps and ringed with raspberry coulis.

Matsumoto, on a dull stretch of West Lawrence, is Chiyo and Isao Tozuka’s gutsy yet surprisingly low-key effort to bring fine kaiseki dining to Chicago. The term refers to a refined tasting menu in a Japanese restaurant, and at Matsumoto the effect is similar to an omakase meal.

Chef Seijiro Matsumoto, originally from Fukuoka, Japan, chooses the menu based on what’s seasonally available-and the thickness of your wallet. When you make reservations, you will be asked your budget (meals are priced from $80 to $150 per person) and whether you prefer an Americanized or a traditional menu. The latter is presumably more exotic, although during one visit an “American” course was jellyfish while the corresponding Japanese course was tuna in vinegar and mayo sauce, so go figure. One hundred dollars gets you as many as nine generous courses-the exact number seems to be the chef’s choice, too.

Matsumoto has definitely not caught on. Unlike Meiji, which is usually jammed, it was mostly empty on our visits. The upside is that Chiyo Tozuka and her charming young kimono-clad waitress promptly ushered us into a private room with fresh flowers and showered us with hospitality. Too bad the plum-colored walls were chipped and a posted occupancy notice dampened the genteel effect. Tables are set with attached wooden chopsticks-I expected lacquer at these prices-in origami-folded paper napkins, and small wicker baskets holding ice-cold wet disposable towels. (They were cold even on a blustery evening, although the waitress explained that the towels were meant to be “cold in summer, warm in winter.") She quickly brought menus handwritten in Japanese script and read them to us; then she poured our order of ice-cold and delicious Kimoto Shizenshu Junmai saké ($65) into crystal flutes. Much of the dishware is also elegant crystal.

Meals uniformly began with some version of an eggplant course, once big chunks of soft peeled grilled eggplant topped with chunky sesame sauce and what looked like frizzled carrots but turned out to be dried sea urchin. Wow! was all the critical commentary I could utter to my companion as we dug into it. Sea urchin appeared again in dumplings floating in a delicate clear soup with rare matsutake mushrooms.

The sashimi course features phenomenally good thick cuts of toro and akami tuna, raw sweet shrimp, a coil of flounder, almost gelatinous squid (odd but delicious), and sea spray–flavored clam. They came sprinkled with flecks of gold leaf and garnished with fresh wasabi and a carved cucumber circle looking like a fancy napkin ring. A bubbling egg gratin was embedded with pieces of eel and small shimeji mushrooms: assertive and scrumptious. Snow crab legs on the “American” menu were served with a terrific sour plum miso sauce; wonderfully tender and tasty roasted duck breast came on a huge sliced cylinder of cooked daikon with a tricolor rice cake.

Then came “soup on fire,” minced sardine balls with fried and soft tofu in a fish-based broth. It arrived in a pot surrounded by flaming crimped paper. Even after the fire died down, the vessel was so hot, the waitress had to help us ladle the soup into our own bowls. “Squeeze lemon over it,” she warned, “otherwise too hot to eat.”

On one visit, dessert was black beans in a martini glass with firm rice balls and crowned with chestnut purée, a freshwater version of seaweed, and more gold flecks, the edges of the glass garnished with halves of crimson rambutan (sweet Malaysian fruit) with long soft spines. It was bizarre enough to be worthy of Moto-but equally scrumptious. (The plain scoop of green tea ice cream another time was a big disappointment.)

Matsumoto’s food is mostly terrific, adventurous, and unlike any other in Chicago. But the owners should spiff up the rather simple space to match the lofty prices and to attract a bigger clientele. Service is gracious but piecemeal, with courses stacking up on the table amid the fast pacing. And, please, warm up those chilly towels for the winter-they also came at the end of the meal-and lose the laminated health code postings while you’re at it.

MATSUMOTO-3800 West Lawrence Avenue. Multicourse dinner $80-$150. Dinner nightly. Closed Wednesday. Reservations: 773-267-1555.

MEIJI-623 West Randolph Street. Appetizers/sushi $6-$15; entrées $15-$26; desserts $5-$8. Omakase menu $95. Lunch Monday to Friday, dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-887-9999.

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