The other day on the Twitter I was poking some fun at Time Out Chicago’s review of some new Japanese place in Bucktown. You can read that review here. As with any review of any new Chicago Japanese restaurant you get a description of some roll with as many ingredients as your average Kuma’s burger. In this case we get the “Bears Maki Roll” (“stuffed with salmon, avocado and crunchy sweet potato and topped with a layer of salmon as well as spicy mayo and unagi sauce”). Somehow TOC describes this as “successful” and not “too busy”.
I’ve been saying this for a while and it remains true: for a world class city our Japanese food is pretty bad. Arami and Juno are gems if you’re looking for sushi (which you will rightly pay for) and Sunshine Cafe is the place to go for comfort food. Ginza and Itto are both good places one level down from the very best, and after that the pickings get very slim.
My theory when it comes to why we don’t have much good sushi comes across as little snobby. I grew up right outside New York City and was eating sushi from a very young age. When I moved to the Midwest I encountered plenty of people who had either never had sushi or had started eating it much later in life (and in many cases their first sushi came from a grocery store). I certainly didn’t consider those people rubes, it was just a matter of logistics. It hasn’t always been easy to get fresh fish shipped just about anywhere as quickly as we see today. If I were living in the Midwest 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been too excited about eating raw fish either…who knows what you were getting?
But here we are today. You can get high quality, fresh fish whether you’re one mile or one thousand miles from the dock. And yet I still don’t think people in Chicago really demand the good stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at the sushi bar at Arami or Juno (or any other now closed space that I may have liked at one time), and have watched a parade of rolls make their way out to the dining room. Meanwhile I’ll be sitting there eating a plate of pristine sashimi, feeling bad for everyone else who was missing out. At least for me, the beauty of Japanese food is in the simplicity and the quality of the ingredients (but appreciating the underlying complexities). Eating a plate of rolls that are doused in sauce and stuffed with God knows what runs directly counter to that experience.
And that’s where we run into the problem. Go read Yelp reviews of Japanese restaurants, or even the TOC review linked above. There are so many that take the form of “the sushi is great…we loved Roll X”. My response to that is “well, then how did you know the sushi was great?”. Of course we should be paying attention to all of what a restaurant is serving. Rolls are part of the equation just as much as anything else on the menu. But let’s not miss turning a critical eye to sashimi and nigiri. Talk to me about how the chef slices the fish. Take a moment to consider whether or not the fish is being served at the right temperature (otoro is great, but is significantly less great if I can taste ice crystals). Pay attention to the rice, including flavor, texture, and temperature. We need to adjust the critical lens that most sushi is viewed through.
We can have better sushi in Chicago. We just need to demand it.