What’s New, What’s Coming, and What’s Cheap in Chicago Dining
Mezcalina, Sumi Robata Bar, and Kai Zan
Dynamite mussel from Kai Zan
Thanks to a barrage of openings, Lakeshore East residents have steak (III Forks), omelets (Eggy’s), and mussels (Maison) at their beck and call. All the neighborhood’s menu lacked was . . . grasshopper? No longer, thanks to Mezcalina. This mural-clad cantina offers a salad studded with the garlic-spiked critters, along with other Oaxacan specialties from Manuel Bañuelos. The Guadalajaran chef also sprinkles the insect on a pizza-like tlayuda, made from a corn tortilla and topped with beef, pork, or “a very high-end string cheese.” Grasshoppers, string cheese, and the eponymous mezcal: Lakeshore East is a full-on culinary fiesta. 333 E. Benton Pl., 312-240-5000.
Coming Soon: Sumi Robata Bar
After a flirtation with robata last year, we moved on. But now that Gene Kato, former chef of Japonais, brings his focus to Japanese charcoal cooking in late November, we open ourselves to the possibility of falling in love. Sumi, his 6,700-square-foot minimalist den of wood, stone, and not much else, will feature a cocktail bar, a tatami room for private parties, and a “Zen patio.” And Kato promises to work the robata bar himself, delivering meats, vegetables, and fish to customers. “That’s what Japanese food is all about,” he says. “Having a relationship with the people you are feeding.” We’re ready for a relationship, Gene. 702 N. Wells St.
Budget: Kai Zan
Signage is virtually nonexistent on this tiny storefront, a blip of coziness on a quiet block in Humboldt Park, leading first-timers to wonder if they got the right address. Inside, it’s all good vibes, relaxed but excellent service, and—courtesy of twin brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde, the chef/owners—top-notch Japanese food. Which explains why the 22 seats are usually full, so make a reservation.
The menu undersells itself, almost laughably. “Breaded pork, wrapped with shiso leaves” doesn’t do justice to the elegant tonkatsu shiso age ($8) that appears before you. Unagi poppers ($10 for six pieces)? You mean like those grease bombs you eat too many of in a bar? No, like tempura flowers with petals of slivered barbecued eel and jalapeño peppers enfolding a dab of cream cheese.
Sushi, sashimi, and maki offerings are wide and various, each plate a masterpiece of fresh tastes and textures. Maguro pearls ($8 for four pieces) and a flaming tuna roll ($13 for eight pieces) are just two of many worth sampling. Kushiyaki preps shine—shiitake mushrooms with ponzu ($3), for example, or scallops with a caramelized onion sauce ($4). Such fun, and BYO ($5 corkage) to boot. 2557 ½ W. Chicago Ave., 773-278-5776.
Photography: (Mezcalina) George Lambros; (salmon-wrapped scallop) Anna Knott