For nearly a year, Chicago diners have walked sadly past the empty space at 652 West Randolph Street, the former home of Grace, which closed at the end of 2017. In just a few days, the space will be reborn as Yūgen, a self-described “contemporary Japanese” tasting menu spot under the leadership of chef Mari Katsumura.
Katsumura may be best known in this city for her pastry artistry (she’s been in the pastry kitchens at the Pump Room, Blackbird, and Acadia, among other places), but she’s not just an expert at whipping up desserts. She’s an experienced chef of savory dishes, too, and has even spent three years in the kitchen she’s now taking over, back when it belonged to Grace.
Most recently, Katsumura was a pastry chef at Gideon Sweet, and while walking home from work one night, she happened to pass by the former Grace space. “The door actually opened when I walked by,” says Katsumura. “It was bizarre.” She ran into owner Michael Olszewski, who was interviewing chefs, and he called her the next day about a potential job.
Yūgen’s identify was born then. Katsumura and Olszewski worked together to come up with the concept and the design for the restaurant. Katsumura’s Japanese background informs the menu, although she’s not trying to replicate what’s popular in Japan. “I spent many years studying other people’s cuisine, different cultures, and I wanted to do something that was true to myself, that Chicago hasn’t seen before,” says Katsumura. Rather than putting together a contemporary menu with an Asian influence or a few Japanese ingredients, she came up with a few traditional Japanese dishes; her lineup progressed from there.
This becomes clear when you see the tasting menu, which includes familiar dishes like miso soup or seaweed salad. But the reality of these small plates is hardly generic. Take the miso soup — every ingredient is carefully made in-house, from the tofu to the stock, and treated “as classically as possible,” says Katsumura. She then strains the entire dish overnight so it’s clear, like a traditional French consommé, and serves it with yuzu oil over homemade tofu, with edamame wasabi powder and fresh scallions on top. The seaweed salad is served on a disc of nasturtium gel, which provides a peppery note, and mixed with candied black sesame and embellished with a tempura-fried West Coast oyster. There are also takes on shabu shabu, tonkatsu, and chawan mushi.
The 13-course tasting menu ($205) isn’t the only way to experience Yūgen. It also houses a cocktail lounge that will offer à la carte dishes to walk-in diners. “It’ll be totally different, more izakaya-forward,” says Katsumura, referring to the Japanese style of pub dining. Daily specials, which include dishes like yakitori and ramen, will rotate, and she hopes that the restaurant will become a space for neighborhood residents and industry folks alike.
It’s never easy to step into a beloved space and try something new. Grace was one of the finest restaurants in Chicago, and it closed amid a storm of controversy (including ongoing litigation between Olszewski and former Grace chef Curtis Duffy and GM Michael Muser). But Katsumura is ready for the challenge. “I take it as an opportunity,” she says. “We have to pay our dues and acknowledge the great things that have occurred in the past, but this moment is about pushing into the future and doing something new and different.”