Cream Cheese and Mayo – We Can Do Better, Chicago!

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.


4 thoughts on “Cream Cheese and Mayo – We Can Do Better, Chicago!

  1. Michael Gebert

    Japanese seems to follow business patterns more than immigration or local tastes, so in the 60s and 70s we had better Japanese near the Merchandise Mart (e.g. Ginza, and my favorite vanished place Yanase, which was a total 1960s time warp) and now much of the best is out towards O’Hare. But even so, we don’t have as good a scene as, say, Columbus, Ohio, which has a Honda plant nearby. The place I want to check out is this one:

    1. jesteinf Post author

      The whole izakaya thing is sort of baffling to me. You would think that that sort of food would be able to catch on in the city given other recent trends but it never seems to work out. Ramen too. I’ve always thought that a good ramen shop (or chain of them) open for lunch in the Loop would print money.

  2. K Davis (@cayloe)

    I think I agree, but have a hard time seeing how you actually get from the current landscape of mediocre-at-best sushi in Chicago to Vancouver or NYC-level delights. If people just stop patronizing the crap sushi places, it’s more likely that business owners will scoff “cow town” rather than dumping more money into the operation to bring up the quality. And, I doubt many patrons would be willing to pay the prices asked for the current quality of sushi/sashimi available at those middling places in the hopes that it’ll convince them to invest more in that side of the business.

    Perhaps the people of Chicago should only eat sushi at Katsu/Arami/Juno, then? They’d likely be eating sushi far less often (unless they are independently wealthy), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is that a bit like saying we’re only supposed to eat steak at David Burke? There should be a place for the low, in my opinion. Those mayo/tempura/tobiko monstrosities are not sushi, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be delicious. We don’t bemoan the lack of marbling in the beef at Monti’s.

    Personally, I stopped seeking out sushi in Chicago years ago (though I made the requisite trips to Katsu & Arami, where I still preferred the cooked dishes), as I find it far more rewarding to partake when I’m on one or the other coast. And, because it’s still true that I haven’t had a single piece of raw fish in Chicago that made me forget I’m several thousand miles from where it was likely caught.

    1. jesteinf Post author

      You’re right, it’s not realistic to expect that people would stop going to the types of places we have now in favor of Arami/Juno all of the time. But it would be great if we had more places like Ginza/Itto which provide a nice experience without spending $80 or $100 per person.

      The media coverage portion of the whole thing is also important. I think it was when Sula reviewed Arami, he barely mentioned the sushi/sashimi. I asked him about it and he basically gave me a “what’s the point” answer (not meaning that people don’t care, but more meaning “how much is there to talk about if it’s just raw fish”…needless to say I strongly disagree with that). So if these places aren’t going to be evaluated (by either pros or amateurs) on the basis of more simple offerings, then I don’t think there’s much of an incentive for them to really focus on that part of the menu. I just hope that can change.


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