The Japanese tasting menu trend has taken hold in the Windy City.
Canapes at Yugen. (Photo by Anthony Tahlier/courtesy of Yugen)
Omakase, the bespoke multicourse Japanese meal, has proliferated in creative Chicago style, offering iterations from traditional sushi-only to sushi-meets-izakaya and even cocktail tastings.
In omakase, “a connection is formed between the chef, his art and the guests he is serving,” says chef B.K. Park. At Juno in Lincoln Park, he has long offered omakase to a few diners nightly; now he heads up West Loop newcomer Mako, whose 23 seats include 13 at a walnut bar and which builds out his dream to create “a unique, personalized and carefully sequenced menu.”
Julia Momose, the creative director at Kumiko, grew up in Japan and calls omakase “a dialogue” between chef and diner. The acclaimed mixologist bends the tradition to her own skills in beverage-making and mindreading. “It’s a little bit of a dance,” she says of presenting a series of drinks based on the preferences of each of the eight people sitting at the omakase bar dining on five small-bites courses by Oriole chef and Kumiko partner Noah Sandoval. “That first micro-expression when they sip something is key to catch.”
Exquisite ceviche at Mako. (Photo by Rachel Bires/courtesy of Mako)
Seasonality is a vital component of omakase and a hinge for chef Mari Katsumura—who grew up working in her family’s seminal Yoshi’s Café in Lakeview and went on to pastry fame at Blackbird and Acadia—at Yugen. Grounded in Japanese traditions, her tasting menus aim to be “approachable and flavor forward” in an organic-channeling dining room with linen-free tables.
While omakase is associated with sushi bars, chef Gene Kato, newly headlining Momotaro, expands omakase selections from raw to grilled, often including dishes like homemade tofu and grilled beef tongue from his late restaurant Sumi Robata Bar. “I like to explore salt, acid, crunch,” he says. “Texture is huge in Asian cuisine.”
Interacting with the omakase chef doesn’t get more intimate than at Sushi-san, where just four diners per seating get the full attention of sushi master Kaze Chan. “I really don’t have a menu in mind until I meet the diners,” says Chan, who then proceeds to roll out nigiri after nigiri, equally comfortable talking about his homemade ponzu and joking that the blowtorch is his only cooking method.
KUMIKO A bar-centric take on omakase from partner and acclaimed mixologist Julia Momose ABV: Five-course high, with low- and no-alcohol options available 630 W. Lake St., 312.285.2912
MAKO B.K. Park explodes the omakase service he offers at Juno in the 23-seat Mako. The Dish: A5-grade wagyu nigiri with ramps pickled for seven months 731 W. Lake St., 312.988.0687
MOMOTARO Gene Kato gives omakase an izakaya accent at style-meets-substance Momotaro. Secret Weapon: Massive oysters grown on the West Coast just for the restaurant 820 W. Lake St., 312.733.4818
SUSHI-SAN Lettuce Entertain You scooped up chef Kaze Chan and gave him the platform his droll personality deserves. Tips From the Chef: “No soy sauce; use your fingers; eat everything in one bite.” 63 W. Grand Ave., 312.828.0575
YUGEN Elegant multicourse menus from chef Mari Katsumura Lagniappe: Destination soup dumplings every Friday in the intimate Kaisho lounge with way-elevated bar fare 652 W. Randolph St., 312.265.1008