Tanoshii West Loop, One Is Not Enough

Tanoshii West LoopSeveral years ago, I went to Tanoshii in Andersonville on a whim. What I initially thought was going to be a brief moment at just any sushi restaurant turned out to be one of the more memorable sushi experiences in Chicago. While going to meet a friend for dinner in West Loop a few weeks ago, I saw a sign for Tanoshii at 720 W. Randolph Street. Wondering if the Andersonville location had relocated, I made a note to visit the West Loop location for a proper update. Upon arrival during my visit at the Randolph Street spot, there were the usual greetings and clarification that the Andersonville location was still intact. I imagine the Tanoshii at 5547 N. Clark Street got a lot of business, which may very well have been the impetus for opening a location in another popular area of Chicago.

Kabocha Soup with Crab

Kabocha Soup with Crab

With Chicago having suddenly gone from mild winter to frigid in a matter of days, I ordered a warm sake for a starter. I had devoured a good amount of food the prior evening with friends I had gone to graduate school with and had snacks all day long, so I was not really in a frame of mind for having to be decisive. When the server said that there was a chef’s choice option to ordering, I agreed to that. But to warm me up further, I requested a cup of kabocha soup with crab in it. The soup has a flavour akin to squash soup. You cannot go wrong with that during cold months and you’re well within heaven’s reach when there is fresh, real crab in it.

Tuna Tartar

Tuna Tartar

The chef’s choice came on a wooden board, full of presentation, and considerably more satisfying than I could describe with any kind of justice. The first item on the board was tuna tartar on a tortilla chip. As much as I like raw seafood, I have never been a fan of raw tuna. On the occasions that I have had it at the request of my servers, I’ve been rather impressed. This was one of those times. The chip balanced out the texture of the tuna, but it was the pop in the flavour that added the wow that made it an incredible preamble to chef’s choice.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

The tuna sashimi was the second item that fell into the category “don’t order much” because of the texture. And again, Tanoshii West Loop somehow managed to change my mind. I didn’t get the list of ingredients used in the tuna sashimi, but it was a good thing that I got a photography for this blog post. I shall order this again when I return and I will have the photo for use during the delivery of the order. The tuna was neither fishy nor rubbery. I think that it were the freshness, the silky texture, and the accents atop of it that made it addictive.

Yellowtail and Salmon

Yellowtail and Salmon

There were yellowtail and smoked salmon sashimi. I have always enjoyed both in maki rolls. However, I have ventured into sashimi dining at Japanese restaurants as of late and find that I want those delectable pieces without them being shared with other ingredients in a roll. The yellowtail and salmon were meaty and so full of bloom that it was after I had finished both that I realized I had eaten them, as well as the tuna sashimi, without any soy sauce. That is the mark of an outstanding sushi chef.

First Makiroll

First Makiroll

Second Maki Roll

Second Maki Roll

I finished the chef’s choice board with a maki roll that reminded me of a rainbow roll. There were tuna and avocado on the roll and enough sauce that this was easily devoured sans any soy sauce, like the sashimi. As much as I wanted a repeat of the chef’s choice board in total, I did opt for another sushi roll. Now I am in love with their truffle honey roll with salmon over a peach balsamic sauce topped off with chili paste and a honey truffle glaze. This was the Mona Lisa of sushi rolls. And would you believe me if I told you that I waddled over to Bombo Bar at 832 W. Randolph Street and had cappuccino and bombolonis, one filled with vanilla custard and one fill with salted caramel?

Bombolonis

Bombolonis

Those who are familiar with Chicago’s West Loop District know that the restaurants fill up quickly. West Loop is a high volume area with plenty of foot traffic and establishments that do a fantastic job luring in customers. Tanoshii West Loop does the same. Unless you tend to sit in the bar area, make reservations, especially during the weekends. From my first visit, I’m certain the after 5:00 PM crowd throughout the week loves to go for sushi and I understand fully. I cannot say if there is a list of “Best Sushi in Chicago” floating around, but I’d be highly disappointed if either Tanoshii location is not on the list.

Tanoshii Sushi Mike's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Seadog Sushi Bar

Seadog Sushi BarHaving watched several photos of sushi on Instagram, it goes without saying that I was in a mood to work some chopsticks. While passing through Wicker Park, there were restaurants quickly filling up with customers who had departed work for the day. Many were probably trying to get into a warm building since Chicago went from tropical to near autumn in a matter of days. Well, not wanting to deal with crowds, I pulled out my cellphone, flipped through some more Instagram photos, and saw a few postings from a restaurant walking distance from where I was pondering what to eat. I quickly made my way to Seadog Sushi Bar at 1500 W. Division Street.

Sea Soup

Sea Soup

Having indeed arrived early enough, I had a window seat and enough room to navigate the table for some shots at different angles. Well, I cannot claim true foodie credibility without photographs of my dining experience. And I was glad to have wiggle room without being in anyone’s way or them in my compositions. Thanks to the sudden drop in temperature, I started with a pot of green tea and a bowl of sea soup. There was no shortage of shrimp, whitefish, and crab in the soup. The flavour of the broth reminded me of sweet soy sauce. The green tea balanced out the sweetness.

The Island

The Island

Spooky Maki

Spooky Maki

An appetizer that grabbed my eye was The Island. It was sushi, but prepared unlike any sushi that I have had before. This was a dish of crispy sushi rice atop ebi tempura. There was a honey mayonnaise in the recipe that gave the sushi a pop that I enjoyed without use of soy sauce. The interesting maki roll was the Spooky Maki. This sushi roll was made of unagi, jalapeno, and cilantro served with a spicy mayonnaise and unagi sauce. The unagi sauce was rather sweet. After patting much of the unagi sauce on the plate, the sushi pieces were delicious.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Seadog Sushi Bar seems like a quaint restaurant, not one that is boisterous and loud. Granted I went as soon as the doors opened for even dinner, there is a bit of a laid back feel in the atmosphere regardless. There is a BYOB policy, so for those who wish to imbibe a cocktail or a beer while feasting on sushi, they may bring their spirits and Seadog will provide glasses. Overall, it was a splendid experience. I will have to keep in mind that it may be wise to order dishes one at a time. I am discovering that a lot of restaurants deliver orders to the table rather quickly and you may not be done with one dish before another one arrives at the table. Seadog Sushi Bar abides by that Americanized way of service. Good sushi is not to be rushed.

Click to add a blog post for Seadog on Zomato

Make Maki, Not War — Miku Sushi Lounge

Miku Sushi Restaurant

A few weeks ago I received an email with a recommendation for a sushi lounge in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood. I must admit that I was rather pleased to have received such a recommendation, given that every time someone suggests a sushi restaurant to me they have been addictive to the point of me constantly returning. With the weather finally being nice in Chicago, I was off to Miku Sushi Restaurant at 4514 N. Lincoln Avenue.

Sunrise Martini

Sunrise Martini

Arriving during noon, I was not subjected to the congestion of the dinner crowd. I had a seat at the sushi bar and briefly scanned the menu. With it being a Saturday and me having the weekend to do as I pleased, I had a sunrise martini during midday. It was rather reminiscent of a Bahama Mama, mostly because there was rum in the mix. One word comes to mind: refreshing.

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

For a starter, I had kobacha squash and crab soup. There is one other sushi lounge, Sen Sushi in Oak Park, that serves kobacha squash and crab soup that I love. And the fact that there is real crab in the recipe, not imitation crab, I was all the more pleased. Now that I know Miku Sushi Lounge has it on their menu, I don’t have to go all the way to Oak Park for this delicious bowl of bliss.

Spicy Shrimp Maki

Spicy Shrimp Maki

My appetite was cranked high enough for me to consider indulging three sushi rolls, and three sushi rolls I indeed indulged. The first was a spicy shrimp maki. There was nothing about this roll that was forgettable, from the fresh ingredients to the burst of flavour with each bite. And, yes, it was spicy, which became more evident when the soy sauce I had infused with wasabi was not required.

Unagi Maki

Unagi Maki

The second maki roll was an unagi roll. Not being one to shy away from eel in my sushi, this was definitely a tasty inclusion in this maki roll. One thing I noticed with the eel was that it had a silky texture. This was in no way a bad thing, but I have never had unagi that was that heavenly on the tongue. Not overdone with sauce, most of this roll was enjoyed without soy sauce for dipping.

Ebi Tempuri Maki

Ebi Tempuri Maki

The ebi tempura maki was simply outstanding. Again, the shrimp was fresh, as were all of the ingredients. I was expecting the ebi tempura maki roll to be slightly pedestrian compared to the spicy shrimp and unagi maki rolls. I was well beyond pleased with the crunch from the tempura and the inviting kick from dipping each piece in the soy sauce with wasabi.

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Egg Rolls

Dessert Egg Rolls

Still having some room for dessert, I had a chocolate cream martini and chocolate chip cookie dough egg rolls. As to the cocktail, it simply is not possible to go wrong with adding chocolate to the mix. The martini was prepared in such a way that the alcohol was not heavy, which was perfect for allowing the chocolate liqueur to taste like chocolate rather than medicinally. The egg rolls were cute and I liked them, although I would have fallen in love with the dessert had the cookie dough been baked before encased in the wonton and fried. I must admit that the accompanying strawberry sauce added a nice touch.

Miku Sushi Lounge is a spacious restaurant with the usual decor found in sushi lounges. Although the restaurant can accommodate a large capacity of diners, the service, price and food no doubt draw a crowd after 7:00 PM. For a neighbourhood that is teeming with Irish pubs, the flavours from the other side of the Pacific Ocean are also welcomed. To the individual who recommended Miku Sushi Lounge, arigatou gozaimasu.

Miku Sushi on Urbanspoon

Domo Arigato, Mr. Robata

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

Recently I received an email about a Japanese sushi and robata grill in the Noble Square neighbourhood in Chicago. I can’t tell you how many solicitations arrive in my inbox from advertising agencies and marketing houses wanting to provide photos and written copy for me to post on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Bad enough I don’t think WordPress allows advertising — as that could mean me making money off of a free site, which would probably go over like a lead balloon. But when I got the email about the Japanese restaurant, I knew that the person who sent it apparently follows Chicago Alphabet Soup enough to know that the blog site is a showcase of my photography and experiences at restaurants and that I only feature ethnic restaurants — albeit some American restaurants are on the site because they are worthy of their inclusion of ethnic influences.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue was the subject restaurant. Although it is on a stretch of Chicago Avenue that has pedestrian traffic, it is not in a high foot traffic area. Nevertheless, it has more of the hipster allure to it, which is pretty much gobbling up the landscape of Chicago. It is more reflective of a younger crowd and truth be told, the hipster cabal tends to be representative of diverse thought and that also carries over into the acceptance of different cuisines. Well, it was easy for me to fit in to the scene and noting the constant ebb and tide of customers through the restaurant, it was apparent that they are doing great business.

Green Tea

Green Tea

I knew that I was going to be overzealous with my dining options, so I ordered hot green tea to ease digestion of the numerous culinary options I had planned to have. Then I began the dangerous task of wanting more than I knew I should have had. Starting small, or so I thought, I ordered a tuna poke. This was Hawaiian tuna salad with green and white onion, Japanese chilli pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil, served atop avocado with an avocado fan for the backdrop. For those who claim to be adventurous with their dining, and you know you say you’re open to trying new things more or less to impress someone, the tuna is raw. Since I love my fair share of sushi, it was no problem for me working my chopsticks on the tuna poke until it was all gone. I must say that the soft texture of the raw tuna and the creamy texture of the avocado may be a bit much for some people, so beware if you are daring.

Tuna Poke

Tuna Poke

Next to come to the table was a flight of the robata grill. These items were prepared yakitori style, being that they were skewered on sticks the way they are prepared for street food in Japan. There was soft shell shrimp with a yuzu sauce. Again, this may be a bit daring for some people’s palates because you get the whole shrimp from head to tail. Next was chicken brushed with black bean sauce and topped with green onions. Looking at it, one may think that it is bland. The flavours burst with each bite to the point where it was anything but pedestrian. Per the server’s recommendation, I had nasu, which was Japanese eggplant with teriyaki sauce. Eggplant parmesan what? Baigan bharta what? Give me tender Japanese eggplant on a stick from now on. Another item on the platter that was slightly different but well worth ordering was shishto. Who would have thought that Japanese sweet peppers with ponzu and teriyaki sauce would have such a winning flavour? Imagine my surprise when I exclaimed, “Wow’” after the first bite. Spicy but not peppery, this yakitori item is a favourite now.

Flight from Robata Grill

Soft Shell Shrimp. Chicken and Black
Bean Sauce. Nasu.

Flight from Robata Grill

Shishito. Nasu. Chicken and
Black Bean Sauce.

After some time to relax and let the previous servings settle, I was ready for more. I ordered a whole grilled squid. Topped with ginger and garlic and served with jalapeño dipping sauce, I immediately swore off having fried calamari and fried squid ever again. I had made that statement before. However, it was an absolute declaration this time. There was no rubbery texture to the squid and that is one of the things about squid that most think is bothersome. That was not the case with the whole grilled squid at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill. And having squeezed lemon over the squid and used the jalapeño dipping sauce, I accepted the fact that I had a winning lunch and was even happier that I had followed the advice of the email note I had received and gone to the restaurant.

Whole Grilled Squid

Whole Grilled Squid

But that was not the end of it. The server had asked me if I wanted to try any sushi. Thinking that I would have been too full up to this point, I was hesitant. Drinking the hot tea really did wonders for not leaving me feeling stuffed. So, I told my server what I liked and she recommended a maki roll that they call Sorry, I’m Drunk. That was a rather curious name for a sushi roll. And even after it came to the table, I still could not believe the name. Unagi, cooked shrimp, spicy mayonnaise, black and red tobiko, chilli oil, and scallions comprised a magnificent display on a wooden board. It looked like a flower, with the sauce and the arrangement. There was such a wow factor to each bite. Freshness to each piece was a testament to the quality of the ingredients. Even the unagi sauce was not sweet, which means you can taste the unagi, shrimp, and spicy mayo. It was incredible.

Sorry I'm Drunk

Sorry I’m Drunk

Well, there was no way I was going to leave without having tried a dessert. I figured I could not go wrong with something light. Mochi balls were it. The flavours were mango, green tea, and strawberry, each placed on a plate and accented with sauces that gave the presentation of a flower and buds. You can’t go wrong with mochi balls and whether they are prepared in-house or somewhere else, they have such a bloom of flavour that you cannot fight when the option to sample some is presented to you. This was an absolute wonderful ending to a fantastic meal.

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

The quality of food at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is comparable to or better than any high-end restaurant in Chicago. Where Yuzu comes out ahead of the game is with reasonable prices. Much like the low cost for street food, you get some really great sushi, robata grill items, and other greats without feeling as though you have given a down-payment on an apartment. Another positive note is the outstanding service. I am a huge advocate of going to restaurants where the wait staff is extremely helpful and even conversational. It makes the experience that more enjoyable. There is only one other robata grill in Chicago where I have had enjoyed my visits thoroughly and now Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is its competition. A return visit is necessary.

Arigato gosatimasu.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill on Urbanspoon

Start, Fin

Fin

Fin

When some of my university classmates who were from Chicago used to say that there are people who have lived here all of their lives and have not gone to all part of the city, I thought it was a far-reaching statement. After a few weekends of passing through several parts of the North Side where I live, I am often finding myself gasping at thinking I have discovered some unchartered section of Chicago.  Then a little later I drive through another section of the North Side that has quaint little boutiques and cafes, never thinking that I would find anything down a residential street aside from houses and apartments. And would you believe that a few blocks east of the my doctor’s office is a Japanese sushi bar that I never knew existed? I mean, I have only been going to that doctor’s location for over ten years.

Miso Yaki Soup

Miso Yaki Soup

House Salad

House Salad

Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood boasts a lot of swanky boutique eateries. However, most of them are along Montrose, Irving Park, and Damen. However, if you find yourself going down side streets to avoid traffic congestion, you may wonder upon a cafe, coffee shop, bakery, or boutique that you would not otherwise see. This was the case with me going East instead of West from my doctor’s office and suddenly eyeing Fin Sushi Bar at 1742 W. Wilson Avenue.  What I had mistaken for a closed business was indeed a restaurant establishment that was open for business. Well, I had to try it out.

With plenty of windows, lots of light, and everything having straight lines throughout the restaurant, there is a spacious ambiance about it. There isn’t the Stanley Kubrick effect or Zen garden feel that you find in most sushi lounges. I went on a Sunday afternoon when the restaurant was practically empty. The host seemed politely dismissive and the server had a Stepford demeanor. Once the camera came out, that all changed, though.

Miso yaki soup. House salad. Thai iced tea. Dragon roll. Spider roll.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

Dragon Roll

Dragon Roll

The miso yaki soup was nice, more for a milder palate than I had expected. The menu had listed the soup as being spicy. Even with jalapeno in it, the taste was lacking to the point of bland. With brocoli, carrots, and green beans in it, the soup seemed like an experiment than an experience. The house salad was visually stunning, blooming with vibrant reds, purples, and greens. The ginger dressing was more of a hint. You knew that it was there because the menu said so, but it wasn’t there.  The few slices of strawberry and the radish shreds reminded me of a salad I had at a sushi bar in Oak Park, Illinois. I reminisced. Where things started to make sense in terms of the flavours being so faint was with the inclusion of Thai dishes. Yes, I had a Thai iced tea, but I had an “Aha!” moment. Granted the iced tea was a major bonus, there was now the fact that I faced as it related to Fin Sushi Bar being a Pan-Asian restaurant more than a Japanese sushi bar only. There was a brief flash of what I thought were Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, spicy basil, and pad see ew). I guess if other restaurants are pandering to a Pan-Asian want and you can’t beat them, then join them.

Spider Roll

Spider Roll

Where it really clicked that Fin Sushi Bar was more of a neighbourhood restaurant was with the sushi. Beautiful in presentation, no doubt about it, but everything was all sixes and nines with the taste. The dragon roll was excessively saccharine and the spider roll simply had me questioning what was wrong with my sense of  taste. The texture of both felt like the chewy sensation you get from pre-packaged sushi or from letting fresh sushi sit in the refrigerator overnight. With with the whole experience at Fin Sushi Bar, all I could do was hum.

For those with a milder palate, Fin Sushi Bar may be a great entry into trying sushi, maki rolls, and even dabbling in some Thai cuisine without going to any of the nearby Thai restaurants. The service was decent. Still I could not put my finger on the atmosphere of stiffness and distance. The lack of flavour in the dishes really left me quizzical. Then again, in that particular neighbourhood, I imagine those who have a tendency to put on a performance if anything spicy makes them red in the face are the more frequent customers. I doubt the restaurant wants to offend those patrons. Perhaps I will have to give them a chance in a year or two. In the meantime, I started at Fin Sushi Bar. I finished elsewhere.

Watashi no namaedesu Williams-san

Sen Sushi

Happiness is sitting outside enjoying a cool breeze blowing through your hair. For me, I have to settle for the breeze blowing across my head since I’m bald. Happiness is watching friends and couples going about their way, smiles on their faces, laughter in the air about them. Happiness is having a career that you love and a supervisor who isn’t a mad man making you hate your job. Happiness is having options for whatever dining delight your stomach may desire. Bliss is walking into a sushi bar and slowly dragging yourself out after you have been right proper stuffed. Rapture is having that cigarette afterwards, even though you really don’t smoke, but you have the imaginary smoke to celebrate great taste.

Sauce and Chopsticks

There is one Japanese sushi bar in Oak Park, Illinois, that I enjoy a lot. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been to Sushi House in the Lake Street and Marion Street block. So I figured I would seek out another sushi bar option, not necessarily in the pedestrian-crowded section of Oak Park. And what should I find as a suggested sushi bar nearby but Sen Sushi at 814 S. Oak Park Avenue. Walking distance from my favourite Brazilian cafe, Taste of Brazil, I am surprised that I had passed the sushi bar and never glanced at it long enough to register its presence. Then again, it does not have any glaring “grab you” indicators. Situated between a market and some other establishment, it tends to blend with what is on either side. However, food enthusiasts like myself have a tendency to find hidden gems. With décor of hard wood and everything having clean, straight lines, I grabbed a seat at the bar, pulled out my camera to get ready to photography my experience, and looked up to find that several people had sat at the bar with me rather than at the seats along the long wall. Subarashii — that would be “fantastic.”

Squash Bisque with Crab

Since it was during the day, I was okay with water for my beverage. Scanning the menu, I saw a soup that I wanted to try. There were also two maki rolls that I figured I would indulge. With the weather being moderately chilly, but not frosty yet, and the trees in vibrant autumn colours, I said to myself that the squash bisque with crab would be my soup of choice. Whose idea was it to put that soup on the menu? Not only was it tasty enough for me to want another bowl, but I was transported briefly to Hudson River stretch of New York around Poughkeepsie. Don’t ask me why but I could only think of trees with bursts of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns with their reflections in the clear Hudson River, and a cornucopia of squash, pumpkin, spices, and gingerbread men begging to be picked up. The soup was neither a victim of heavy-handed spices, nor was it an attempt at an autumn soup. Each spoonful reminded me of why autumn is perhaps my favourite season of the year. And to say that the addition of crab to the soup was only an added bonus would be an insult. A bit reminiscent of lobster bisque, the chunks of real crab in the squash bisque made everything absolutely beautiful in the Land of Food.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

I had two sushi rolls. One was a spider roll. This futomaki was battered deep-fried soft shell crab with chipped cucumber, avocado, daikon sprouts, and spicy mayonnaise, rolled inside nori and sushi rice. First, I had the crab in the squash bisque, and then I had it soft shell style in the sushi roll. Kon’nichiwa — that would be “hello.” One thing I always try to note or detect — with my mock sushi snobbery — is the freshness of the sushi. Is there a muddy hint? Is there a fishy tone? Does all of the seafood taste like cod? Is the texture rubbery? I am happy to report that the spider roll brought about a smile that I didn’t bother to hide. The other roll was a tiger maki. I must admit that the recipe of shrimp tempura, kampyo, spicy mayonnaise, salmon, kabayaki sauce, red tobiko, and black tobiko resulted in a creation that was worthy. Such love on a serving block deserves an encore and trust me when I say that I shall return to show my appreciation just the same. Both rolls were a bit more substantial than I thought they were when the server first placed them before me. Ah, but I had forgotten about the soup that I had slurped in the true Japanese fashion — loudly and without shame, for to be prim about such a tasty delight would have been offensive.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

The prices are what you would expect to pay at any really great sushi bar. Perhaps on a Friday or a Saturday night I shall have to see if their drink menu warrants a rave review. I can say with authority that the soup and the sushi were big on my list of things that bring about happiness. Even with the sushi bar filling up shortly after I had arrived — and got ready to start photographing my food — the seating and the ambient lighting on the inside, along with a respectful tone from the dining patrons, makes Sen Sushi a fantastic place for relaxation while eating, as well as great dating venue. Being a narcissist, I can attest to the latter, although I appreciate the former. The service from the wait staff may be a bit off-putting, but once you engage them in conversation, you find that the airs are just a façade because the floor staff is actually quite conversational, especially after you ask for recommendations. I was happy not to be rushed, although there were others coming in to have a seat for some in-house dining. They understand that they have small real estate, but they also apparently appreciate patrons’ business. So after an arigatō here and a sayōnara there, I was on my way down the street, missing my steps on the curb and speaking Japanese to several of the Oak Park ilk who probably thought I was making fun of any Asian language. They probably didn’t understand that happiness is enjoying an ethnic meal so much that you become a part of the ethnicity.

SEN Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Bang the Gong

Hot Woks, Cool Sushi

ChopsticksYears ago, a great friend and I used to frequent a restaurant in downtown Chicago named My Thai. It was a fantastic escape after work on Fridays for some of the best curry dishes that you could find in the city. And if curry was not something we were hankering for, then there were other dishes like pad thai, bamee noodles, basil chicken, or ginger tofu. We never wanted for anything that was not served up lovingly from their kitchen. Then after a length of time not going, we happened to go to the restaurant one day after work and discovered a surprise — it was no longer there, but replaced with another Pan-Asian restaurant. How could this be? Who had allowed this to happen? Why were we not consulted for our permission? And the other My Thai chains were not in walking distance such that our growling bellies would entertain any more time seeking good Thai cuisine in the immediate area. So, we took a chance and had some food so yummy that it left us quivering. Bang the gong!

Fast forward to a few days ago, and I found myself at one of the chains for this new restaurant. Located at 2032 W. Roscoe Village is one of the sister restaurants for Hot Woks Cool Sushi. The first chain branch where my friend and I had gone still retained the minimalist feel that the prior My Thai restaurant had. Another branch that is two blocks from where I work in downtown Chicago has chic-chic ambience. The location in Roscoe Village brings the same air to it. Minimalist and airy, I had a window seat off to the side of the sushi chef stand. As I perused the lunch menu, I remembered saying that I would not blog chain or franchise restaurants. Well, when it is good, there is no denying that a write-up is necessary. As for Hot Woks Cool Sushi, I had to ask myself why it had taken so long to pen how worthy the whole dining experience there is.

GyosaHot Woks Cool Sushi has Japanese and Thai cuisines on the menu with a hint of Chinese added for a little more fusion appeal. I opted for the Japanese selection. As usual, I had to start with an appetizer, entertain an entrée, and work my way up to dessert. Starting out, I had gyoza. In many Asian dining, you will hear the term pot stickers. Yep, these are the same, and served with a soy sauce they are incredibly heavenly on the palate. These were a little more crispy on the outside than usual and that actually worked in their favour as they absorbed more of the sauce. And I tended to all five pieces until there was only the shredded carrots left that I also gobbled with a smirk plastered across my face.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpWith it being lunch time and me having missed breakfast, I did not hold back on ordering two maki rolls. I had a ravenous appetite — albeit no more mad than usual. There are two types of maki rolls that I love, hands down. There was unagi maki and a spicy shrimp maki. Once I got over the notion that eel was not a snake, as opposed to seafood, I could enjoy eel rolled up in some rice and served sushi style. Hence, the unagi roll being one that I ordered without hesitation. I am not one to speak to which part of the week seafood is freshest in restaurants, but the eel was absolutely tasty without any “old” or muddy accents in the flavour. I was quite happy working my chopsticks on the maki pieces and plopping them in my mouth. There were smiles, although I was not on Fantasy Island, but I was quite appreciative of the wonders of what sat before me. And when I had begun to attend to the spicy shrimp, I was devoutly in love. Having been to the East Coast and returned with a bit of sinus congestion, the kick in the spicy shrimp maki opened my nasal passages nicely. And ever so the danger boy that I am, I dipped the pieces in the soy sauce that I had primed with a few small dollops of wasabi. Happiness. Bliss. Rapture. Glee. Elation. Pick a word, any word to describe how satisfied I was and submit it to Webster’s with a photo of my smiling face for inclusion in the dictionary. Then again, only my expression could describe the satisfaction I derived from fresh ingredients wrapped in rice, stacked neatly on a plate for my temptation, and the flavour that dance about between my cheeks.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpAs if that was not enough, I simply could not leave without having dessert. No sticky rice with mango. No sticky rice, period. No Thai custard. Sure, those were on the menu, but I had to have mochi balls. I was all about them bringing me mango and green tea mochi balls. As I sat at my window seat having my way with the cold dessert, I pondered the marvel of cloud formations flying above in the sky. As you may have noticed, I have a tendency to pontificate about meaningless things when I am indulging culinary delights. I wondered where do these Asian restaurants find these ice cream balls. One friend said that I can find them at Trader Joe’s. Believe me when I say that I will go to all of the Trader Joe’s in the metropolitan Chicago area in search of these delights — until I go back to Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Mochi Balls

Now, at most sushi restaurants that dole out the same quality as Hot Woks Cool Sushi, you can expect to pay the price handsomely. I cannot say whether it is for ambience or for name at many Japanese establishments, but at Hot Woks Cool Sushi you pay an inviting tab for atmosphere, top service, and a quality dining experience. I may have had my purist thoughts about chain restaurants when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup, but it takes certain establishments to wreck that meme and have me rumpled at the table, all but drooling while trying to figure out when next I can get my feet under the table again at — shall we say — Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Bang the gong!

Hot Woks Cool Sushi on Urbanspoon

Of Finding Many Holy Grails

Ruk Sushi Bar and Thai Ciuisine

When it comes to recommended dining in Chicago, newspapers and magazines tend to promote certain neighbourhoods more than others. Lincoln Park. Lakeview. Andersonville. Near West Loop. Near South Loop. Hyde Park. Wicker Park. Bucktown. Logan Square. River North. Uptown. Downtown. These are the ones that receive the most press and rightfully so. But these neighbourhoods comprise a rather small percentage of Chicago as a whole. In my politically correct vernacular, restaurants in these areas tend to cater to those with milder palates, lest some editorial gets posted by someone who was red in the face from spicy food. Along the lines of seeking something not a part of the common recommended eateries, I happened upon a Japanese sushi bar and Thai cuisine restaurant in Chicago’s Portage Park. At 4431 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Ruk may be found. Granted Portage Park is undergoing an incredibly slow urban renewal, there are some pearls that are starting to dot the landscape as buildings that were once vacant have since transformed into bars and restaurants. Ruk is one of these new establishments.

Crunchy Shrimp Maki

With an interior that looks like it was once a sports bar but now has a minimalist feel, Ruk is a great culinary boutique for some of the best sushi and Thai cuisine in Chicago. Upon entry, you are greeted with a welcome and escorted to any of the window seats. Yes, everyone gets a window seat. Behind the counter were two young Mexican sushi chefs who deserve high marks. This is the second sushi bar I have gone to where the sushi chefs were Mexican and who could easily raise the bar for flavour in the food without compromising the authenticity of the experience.

Spicy Ebi Tempura

Hungry as usual and daring to boot, I ordered two maki rolls and a Thai dish. I started with a crunchy shrimp maki that had shrimp tempura, cucumber, scallion, tempura crunch, masago, spicy mayo, and kabayaki sauce. Although the shrimp had been cut, there was still a lot of it in the roll. For there to have been five pieces, it was filling and the preparation had so much flavour without going all over the place that I could have ordered another crunchy shrimp and not had any remorse about possibly not trying another roll. But I ordered a spicy ebi tempura instead. Shrimp tempura, spicy mayo, cucumber, and scallion worked together in a magnificent combination that had me nodding to the sushi chefs in appreciation — I sat across from the sushi stand. I had a mind to order another sushi roll, but I wanted to try something from the Thai menu. I must admit that I find it fascinating that there seems to be a constant pairing of Japanese and Thai in Chicago, neither pairing cuisine with countries that border them. I have only experienced a blending of Thai, Indian, and Burmese cuisines in Toronto. Then again, Toronto is Utopian in its cultural diversity. But that is quite okay. And it was just fine when the panang chicken came to the table. I have had panang that was so bad that I wanted to throw the bowl against the wall. I have had panang so good that my eyes rolled back in my head. And then I taste the panang — and I ordered it Thai spicy since I have no mild palate — at Ruk and all I wanted to do was hum while my foot kept tapping the floor. The panang gravy was not hearty, but it was thick nevertheless and the taste-vibrant green and red peppers were the ideal accent. To the cook who prepared that dish with fresh chicken and superb panang deserved an applause.

Panang Curry with Chicken

In fairness to the newspapers and magazines that give plugs to the aforementioned neighbourhoods as having the best cuisine, I understand that they want to promote businesses that will be comfortable for the multitude. Having gone to most of the recommended eateries, I can attest to how delicious the meals were that I had eaten. However, the atmosphere in many comes across “upscale sports bar for the professional man and woman.” Loud and boisterous, you have to yell to be heard. Dining should not come with aggravation, even if the food puts many New York City restaurants to shame. But a few miles away from those locations are some of the absolute best authentic cafes and restaurants. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I continue to seek many fooderies — my made-up word — where my appetite and I may be sated while continuing the quest for finding as many holy grails of dining as possible.

Ruk on Urbanspoon

Gambling, No Win

The month of April has been a wonderful month for me. Having had a birthday on the fifth of April, I began a great deal of celebration. With many other friends having birthdays this month, that means I have been in feasting mode since the month began. Food. Desserts. Drinks. Reminiscing. All the good things. There has not been one day or evening that I have not been pleased from some type of food satisfaction. Even the night prior to me penning this journal entry I was at an Indian restaurant with a great friend having a fabulous time on some choley batura and four incredibly large shrimp. And to think that I woke with hunger again, ready for action, hankering to quiet the monster that growled endlessly. Being the puppet that I am, I figured that I would venture to the South Side down to Hyde Park to work my appetite on something at one of the many restaurants there. Through congestion and gauntlets of crazy drivers, I cursed and projected foul language the entire drive from my condo to Hyde Park. Shinju Sushi I arrived in Hyde Park and decided that I would start at 53rd Street and find something along that stretch. Thai. Italian. Barbecue. Japanese. Coffee. The selection was vast, but my hunger wanted me to be quick. So, I settled for Japanese at Shinju Sushi, located at 1535 E. 53rd Street. Upon entry, I had a bit of the welcoming feeling you receive when you go to saucy fast food joints but with a hostess who takes you to your seat. A rather cold welcome, a quick escort to my seat, and that was it. Not much of a problem, but while reviewing the short list of sushi options, one server came by and yanked the main menu. This was a red flag. Needless to say, I did not have a chance to see what was on that menu, just in case I may have had an interest ordering something from that bill of fare. Miso Soup Miso soup was one item I was going to order, but a server had brought out a bowl that I took for being complimentary. Enough to warm me up on the inside, considering it was brisk outside, I devoured the bowl of miso soup with a smile. By then, I had finished my order. I had a taste for gyosa, unagi maki, and shrimp tempura maki. No sooner had I handed the selection to the waitress than she returned with the gyosa. It was as though there was some telepathy involved. The chef knew that I wanted gyosa. Served with the accompanying sauce, this fried potsticker appetizer was tasty the way I have had other gyosa — albeit at room temperature. Gyosa After having the second of the five gyosas, the sushi came to the table. Again, the chef must have had some kind of telepathy because sushi does not come quickly unless it has been prepared in advance. And at the risk of sounding like a sushi snob, there was a hint of pre-packaging that I gathered based on the first bite. If you have bought any pre-made sushi or if you have ever had sushi or a maki and saved some for later, there is a certain texture that the sushi takes on. While not stale, each bite presents the feel of chewing gum that has been gnawed for half of an hour. This was the case with the unagi maki. In addition to the noticeable texture, the eel sauce on the maki was rather sweet. An indication of my gums experiencing a slight throb was hint enough that the unagi sauce on the maki was more saccharine than necessary. Little kids who thrive on sugary treats to perk their already-boosted energy would love the unagi maki. Unagi When it was time to consider having my way with the shrimp tempura, I had opted to leave a few pieces of the unagi maki alone. Yet again, there was the texture of pre-made sushi and at room temperature. Add to that the sugary sauce that had been used to douse the shrimp tempura maki. Oh were my teeth sensitive. Having a low sugar diet, and primarily avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and excessive quantities of sugar, my palate goes into overdrive, my gums come to life, and my teeth tingle like I have drowned them in ice water. I could only stomach a few pieces of the shrimp tempura maki. Honestly, the whole process was a case study in me forcing myself to eat and that is problematic considering I have an outrageous appetite that requires little coaxing for stuffing my jaws.Tempura Shrimp Shinju Sushi is one of those restaurants that I would have plugged shamelessly during my college days. The cheap prices — a buffet of $14.99 — and just the mention of sushi would have been enough for me to have stamped myself as sushi omnipotent, as though I had lived my whole life in Japanese going to the best sushi bars ever, and been a walking advertisement. After watching sushi chefs work their magic on fresh ingredients, it is easy to become a purist. Then you have sushi with questionable texture and excessively sweet taste. Well, you win some. And then you return to sushi bars where you have walked away teetering from having eaten so much fresh and tasty sushi and maki. Yes, you win some.

Shinju Sushi on Urbanspoon