While the wait for Katana lags on, we now know who’ll man the grill and roll the sushi when the 13,000 square-foot restaurant opens later this summer at Marina City (339 N. Dearborn St., River North).
Executive chef Jose “Junior” Melendez will bring the heat at the binchotan grill. He has been with Katana’s parent company, Innovative Dining Group, since 2010, first cooking at BOA Steakhouse before honing his robata skills at the West Hollywood Katana. The L.A.-bred chef will turn out Katana’s much-loved skewered snacks (which range in price from $8 to $13), along with some heftier entrees, such as whole fish. “We want to accommodate heartier Midwest palates,” Chicago manager Jason Chan (Juno, Naoki) says.
Rob Juan steps in as executive sushi chef. Like Melendez, Juan is transferring from Katana in L.A., where he served as sous chef. Before working as far afield as Hawaii, he trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and clocked time in the kitchen of Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel, so this marks his triumphant return to the Midwest. “It’s all about the artistry,” Juan says of his creations, which will reach uncharted territory for many Chicago sushi-eaters. In addition to sourcing exotic ingredients (i.e. monkfish liver), he will jacket some of his maki and handrolls in soy paper, sardine paper, or heirloom strains of nori instead of standard seaweed. You’ll find Juan posted up behind the sushi bar, which also will offer omakase feasting for four.
Will the Melendez/Juan duo win over Chicago’s Japanese food devotees? Chan sounds confident: “Innovative Dining Group wanted the best chef they could find for the protein: That’s Chef Junior. They wanted the best for sushi, so [they chose] Chef Rob,” he says.
“And they wanted the best operator, and someone who has a hand on the pulse of Chicago,” he adds. “That’s me.”