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Reviews: Roka Akor and Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar

FIRE POWER: Two Japanese spots in River North test the lure of robata grilling

(page 2 of 2)

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar, an unhinged spot with its own custom-made robata grill, takes more chances with its menu than Roka does. The free edamame that starts the meal may be the last straightforward item on your table, which could include bento sliders, uni alfredo soba, and unagi doughnuts. This sounds like Moto on three hits of acid, but some of it actually works. A lot of it does not.

Chances are, you heard about Union before it opened. The owners, Worachai “Chao” Thapthimkuna (former exec chef at Sushi Wabi) and Mike Schatzman (former sales director for Visa), launched a savvy Twitter campaign that kept the place germane through a series of clever videos, like one celebrating a new maki creation called a Rahm Emanu-Roll. The space, a Technicolor fun house of curvy staircases, high ceilings, and stylized graffiti, captures that vibe. Another big chain-mail sculpture—what gives? But the centerpiece, a gas-powered robata grill enclosed in glass, features seats right in front so patrons can watch the chefs in their natural habitat, like lions at Lincoln Park Zoo. You half-expect a manager to warn you not to tap on the glass.

The grill quickly sears whatever comes near (“There is no low and slow here,” says Schatzman), and the chefs skewer and set ablaze seemingly anything they can get their hands on. Alligator, squid, cauliflower, and monkfish all get turned into kushiyaki, with varying degrees of success. Beef tongue comes across like tender pot roast but with tantalizing blackened edges and an accompanying Japanese curry; it fares better than an oddball fish cake oozing with togarashi and Wisconsin pepper Jack. The cauliflower, spiced with Cheddar and red miso, sings; the tofu with rice puffs only mumbles.

The playful kitchen staff throw ingredients like okra and collard greens into the sushi rolls—to the point where you find yourself wishing they’d rein it in, as they do on the highly sculpted but lovely tamago (sweet omelet). After slogging through venison tartare, a meat-loaf-like hunk overpowered by an egg yolk, caramelized onions, seaweed, and a zillion other distractions, I gravitated to (relatively) normal dishes, like a luscious Berkshire pork loin kissed with coconut milk and dripping with Japanese curry-peanut sauce, topped with fried onions, and plated on enoki mushrooms. Then again, I also found the bright orange uni alfredo soba, with its perfectly done green-tea noodles mingling with creamy sea urchin and an explosion of salmon roe—a dish that has no business existing, much less succeeding—strangely alluring. Who can explain such things?

THE SKINNY

UNION SUSHI + BARBEQUE BAR 230 W. Erie St.; 312-662-4888
FYI Wonder how many people are springing for the $4 fresh wasabi?
TAB $25–$35
HOURS Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner nightly

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

Union’s drinks lean to rococo cocktails and agreeable sakes like the ultrasmooth “flirtatious” Water Place “Mizubasho” Gunma, and its servers tend toward well-trained hipsters in jaunty hats. Our guy pushed the yuzu ice studded with raspberries, blueberries, and mint leaves for dessert, which doubled as a refreshing palate cleanser after the shenanigans that preceded. He also couldn’t stop talking about the robata grill, which periodically shoots up flames to remind you of its prowess. “Our goal is to get more adventurous and creative over time with the items that we cook at the robata,” says Schatzman, and you’ve got to admire his audacity. Now if only Union could balance the adventure with some restraint. Just because you discover fire doesn’t mean you should devolve into pyromania.
 

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