Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge
When I had returned from Washington, DC, in December of 2011, my work wife and another great friend took me to a Japanese fusion lounge a few blocks from where we worked. The dining experience was a bit of a bittersweet moment, for I had given my letter of resignation upon my return and I was going to start the New Year on another assignment — Operation Moving Up and Moving On. While I was in DC, they had gone to the restaurant and Skyped me for a video call. Before them sat the most artistic display of sushi and maki rolls, or rather half-finished since they had called towards the end of their entrée delights. It was a certain mango cheesecake that had them cooing and smiling with a rather easy glee that had made me hanker for wanting to be in Chicago enjoying the moment with them. But it was in late December that we walked over to Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge at 332 E. Illinois Street on my final day. Oh what a wonderful and magnificent day that was.
I recently met with the great friend who had taken me out for my congratulatory dinner at Niu since it was next door to the cinema where we were going to see Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. With this being opening day for the show, we decided that we would see a late viewing and partake of some of the delectable sushi for a few hours in advance. Great weather and a slow, orange sunset, we sat outside and started with refreshing martinis. My friend had a mango martini that would have made James Bond fumble with his famous line — martini shaken, not stirred. The recipe of Van Gogh mango vodka, Japanese sake, and mango puree left a lip-licking impression on my friend. As if that aperitif was not splendid enough, the French martini I had, made of Grey Goose Citroen, Chambord, and pineapple juice, really gave indication that the bartending service at Niu has not only raised but has jury rigged the bar — no pun intended — in Chicago. Not that I can speak or write to any of the other drinks, observing the expressions on other patrons’ faces scream “Oh my God!” was enough to indicate that the guru of liquid love at Niu deserves an award, if not a tip separate from the servers. Bartenders at Japanese sushi bars and lounges tend to be the best in the industry, in all caps.
In keeping with the tropical temperatures we had been having in Chicago, things like pineapples, citrus fruits, and coconut came to mind. And eying the menu, there was a listing for lobster coconut soup. Oh how lovely. How divine. How necessary to see just how good it tasted. Served in large bowls, this soup was reminiscent of Thai tom kha ghai soup, except that there were chunks of lobster in it instead of chicken. Filled with tomatoes, mushroom, and meaty lobster, we told the waitress to hold off on bringing our sushi rolls so that we could enjoy these bowls of love without having to stop for rearrangement of things on the table to accommodate more food. Such worthy menu items should never be interrupted for any reason — ever!
Rather than ordering all of our sushi rolls at once and having them all delivered to the table simultaneously, we were linear with our orders. We started with a crunchy shrimp maki roll. Here we had shrimp tempura, Alaskan shredded crab, cucumber, radish sprout, Japanese mountain carrots, all wrapped with tempura crunch. There are times when soy sauce peppered with wasabi is not necessary, as the maki roll does an excellent job holding its own. Much could be said about the crunchy shrimp roll. There was so much crab and shrimp in the roll that there was pop to it, but not enough that it took away from the other ingredients. And this maki roll did not consist merely of four or five pieces, but there were eight substantial pieces that left us with applause for flavour that burst through with each bite.
The second maki roll that we had eaten was one that we consider to be a favourite at any Japanese sushi bar where we have gone. The dragon roll was one we knew with certainty that would be a winner. It was made of shrimp tempura, Alaskan shredded crab, cream cheese, and topped with eel on some and avocado on the rest. There was absolutely no way we were going to walk away from Niu without having taken a short metaphysical trip to heaven. I shall be the first to say that if you want to capture love between chopsticks, it would behoove you to go to Niu and order this sushi wonder. Now, I know that some cringe and fall on the floor squirming when they read that eel is on this. Oh, but eel tastes so incredible once it has been cooked and accented with Japanese barbecue sauce. Put it on a dragon roll and you will forget what eel is, other than it will make a tone-deaf singer hit the most magnificent operatic arias.
For the third sushi roll, we had a spider roll that was made of soft shell crab, shredded crab, cucumber, radish sprout, Japanese mountain carrots, and topped with fish eggs. I honestly believe the sun paused for a second when we plopped the first piece of the spider roll on our tongues. Well, I would like to belive that the roll was worthy enough to stop things like Chicago traffic, volcano lava, the sun, shooting stars, and the wind, but it only rendered my friend and me to vaudeville idiots snapping away with our chopsticks and fumbling over our words. All of those sushi rolls and the slow-creeping alcohol from the martinis really worked us, played with us, molded us in to putty with legs that later walked with careful steps next door to the cinema. My friend smiled. I smiled. She and I sang music from the 80’s that was popular during the second British music invasion. And the fact that neither of us was embarrassed at our antics meant the sushi chef and bartender really did a great job.
But that was not all, for there was dessert to be had. There was no way that we were going to tackle our own individual desserts, so we ordered one to share. My friend had remarked about how much she liked the mango cheesecake and thought that the red velvet cake topped with raspberry mousse was going to be merely interesting. When the dessert arrived and she got the first taste, I think the combination of cake and mouse, as well as the lush flavour, blew her mind. Hell, it blew my head off and across the street where it rolled through the manicured grass where others sat while enjoying a beautiful end of the day. Red velvet cake is as commonplace on the dessert menu in Chicago as the sun rising in the East, so believe me when I say that the raspberry mousse was a palate-pleasing addition that I hope does not influence any other dessert menus because I would scream if I found that this combination was being exhausted throughout the great city of Chicago the way red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting is being done now.
So, it is starting to look as though Japanese lounges are becoming all the rage in Chicago. Far be it from me to become a purist and scoff at that notion. When you have sushi bars like Niu, you start asking the question of when there will be another sushi bar or fusion lounge opening. Fresh, delicious, reasonably priced, delectable, and lovely are just a few words to describe the sentiments that my great friend and I had as we tested our steps while going to the picture show. With this being my second time going, I must say that this time was better than the first. That says something. And if third time is a charm, I will play the lottery.
Oh, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was fantastic, in all caps.
20 July 2012