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Eastern Promises

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | September 13, 2012

In the West Loop, the just-opened Embeya features a refined mix of traditional and contemporary takes on Asian cuisine. Nearby OON, opening soon, offers American dishes with Southeast Asian influences. Jellyfish, which debuted earlier this month, serves pan-Asian food in its swanky second-floor Rush Street location. Randolph Street’s BellyQ, an Asian barbecue spot, was one of the summer’s most anticipated openings. Opening this fall in Old Town is Sumi, a boutique robata bar. And River North’s Slurping Turtle from fine dining chef Takashi Yagihashi has been serving Japanese comfort food to a packed house since last November.

No, it’s not your imagination—Asian-inspired restaurants are on the rise in the Windy City. And it’s not just here. You have heard of James Beard Award-winning chef David Chang and his mini empire of Momofuku restaurants in NYC, right? Then there are the Kogi food trucks in L.A., whose Korean-style tacos have launched plenty of similar mishmash concepts across the country.

This isn’t the first time that it’s been en vogue to feature Eastern and Western flavors and ingredients together on one plate. Back in the 80s the two hung out a lot together, but more often than not the end results were uninspiring. There is a reason, after all, this fusion style of cuisine became known as “the F-word” in culinary circles.

These days, however, it’s a much different story.

Take, for example, Avondale’s Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie Ave., 773.904.8558), which opened at the beginning of this year. Here Matthias Merges took his 14 years of fine dining experience at Charlie Trotter’s and created a menu of Asian-inspired street food, including fresh-off-the-grill skewers. The result? Fun, delicious and, odds are, like nothing you’ve ever had before—think oxtail braised in red miso, chicken skin with Japanese mustard, Thai basil soft-serve—and that goes for its equally quirky décor, too. It’s not just us who thinks so; Yusho was picked by Bon Appétit as one of its 50 best new restaurants of the year.

For Merges, his aha moment came on a trip to Japan in 1995. “I found very early in my career that the simplicity, purity of product and attention to detail in Japanese cuisine struck a chord with me,” he says. At Yusho, he mixes that passion with his love for local farms and seasonal products, and applies techniques derived from Asian cuisine to create the restaurant’s eclectic mix of dishes.

It was while working together at the Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria Chicago) that Attila Gyulai, then the director of operations, and Thai Dang, chef de cuisine for the hotel’s restaurants Ria and Balsan, first began brainstorming ideas for a concept that would combine Asian flavors and ingredients with French culinary techniques in a refined setting. “We thought Asian cuisine needed to get the honor and respect it deserved,” says Gyulai.

A few years later, their Randolph Street restaurant Embeya (564 W. Randolph St., 312.612.5640) came to fruition. Inside the 7,000-square-foot space you’ll find light fixtures inspired by sea urchins and moss green walls of Venetian plaster. At the bar, Rieslings dominate the wine list. On the food side, Dang taps into his Vietnamese heritage and fine dining skills to create dishes such as squid stuffed with bone marrow and ground pork, and sticky rice with coconut cream and cardamom-cured mango. As far as that open kitchen? “We want to showcase that Asian cuisine can be done with finesse, and not just behind closed doors,” says Dang.

At nearby OON (802 W. Randolph St., 312.929.2555) Matt Eversman, another vet of Charlie Trotter’s, and more recently Saigon Sisters, discovered a love for Asian ingredients and culture while at culinary school. Rather than fight it and force himself to go a more traditional culinary route, he says, he opted to showcase his passion for Asian food and knowledge of contemporary American cuisine at his first restaurant. Translation: pork tenderloin stuffed with Chinese sausage, steamed whitefish with grilled watermelon and kimchee salad, and cornmeal tempura okra. “It’s much more fun when you can put something a little bit funkier on the menu and people are still excited to try it,” says Eversman.

Before partners Mike Schatzman and chef Worachai “Chao” Thapthimkuna opened River North’s Union Sushi + Barbecue Bar (230 W. Erie St., 312.662.4888) mid last year, they did their homework. “We went around the U.S. and the world to understand how other people are showcasing Japanese cuisine,” says Schatzman. “We wanted to do something that was approachable and more of a neighborhood style than too high-end.” In the early days, diners didn’t know what to make of the menu, a mix of noodles, dumplings, sushi and items from a 600-degree robata grill—garlic-soy alligator, anyone?—or the restaurant’s colorful graffiti-splashed interior. Not anymore, with dishes such as “Buffalo” duck wing with sweet chile butter sauce and sushi rolls made with black rice topping the busy restaurant’s most-wanted list.

Chef Gene Kato, formerly of Japonais, got the idea for his soon-to-open restaurant Sumi Robata Bar (702 N. Wells St., when he noticed, while working at various events, that diners would “flip out” for items he cooked to order off of his portable robata grill. “Chicago is a huge meat town and everyone understands barbecue,” says Kato. “It [robata grilling] is simple but hits all the senses.”

While Kato’s menu will feature some hot and cold appetizers, it’s the robata grill imported from Japan that will take center stage. “Basically, for me, it’s about doing one thing and perfecting it,” says Kato, who’s spent the last five years researching the ancient artisanal Japanese cooking technique. Kato plans on using charcoal from Japan called binchotan, which burns slower and maintains a higher heat. “It doesn’t flame up like typical charcoal, so it creates smoke, and that’s where you get the flavor,” he says. “If you don’t have that smoke smell on your clothes when you leave then you haven’t been to a real robata grill.”

Rather than focus on one item, Jellyfish (1009 N. Rush St., 312.660.3111) features a pan-Asian menu. “Our menu is a journey throughout all the different regions in Asia,” says partner Joe De Vito. That means everything from spicy barbecue chicken skewers and sushi rolls to a Wagyu rib-eye with sriracha-spiked potatoes.

Part of the inspiration for the swanky spot came from seeing a void in the neighborhood of this type of food, says De Vito. But just as important, adds partner Josh Carl, is Asian cuisine’s ability “to be dressed up or down,” something that comes into play often at Jellyfish, since it offers both a more casual lunch menu and a streamlined lounge menu in addition to its more formal dinner items.

Experimenting with Asian ingredients is nothing new for chef Bill Kim, who’s been doing just that for the last few years, first at Urbanbelly (noodles, dumplings and rice) and then at Belly Shack (Korean and Latin flavors). At his newest venture, BellyQ (1400 W. Randolph St., 312.563.1010) he once again partnered with his wife, Yvonne Cadiz-Kim, and, for this project, Cornerstone Restaurant Group and Michael Jordan. For the menu at the former One Sixtyblue space, Asian-style barbecue with housemade rubs and sauces is front and center, as well as dishes such as tea-smoked duck, savory pancakes and cold soba noodles with marinated eggplant.

While modern fusion food is having its moment these days, for Kim the inspiration is much closer to home. “You look at myself and Yvonne and we are a multicultural couple,” he says (Bill is Korean; Yvonne is Puerto Rican). “Honestly, eating food from different cultures is the way we live as a couple.”

That’s a similar story for Billy Dec of Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ (441 N. Clark St., 312.955.1900). “I’m half Asian, so it’s what I’ve been eating at home since I was a baby,” says Dec of his desire to create Asian-inspired restaurants (he and his Rockit Ranch Productions partners also own neighboring pan-Asian spot Sunda). To create the menu, which features classic American-style barbecue items with touches of Asian influences, Dec and his partners traveled through Japan. Dec also visited China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. For the other half of the menu’s inspiration? “I have either visited or had barbecue delivered to my couch every Sunday from every place in the city over the last 10 years,” says Dec.

As for those who might not initially get the restaurant’s Asian-American barbecue riffs, Dec’s not worried. “For a kid who used to be made fun of when friends came over for having so much Asian food cooking in our house, I kind of smile now knowing that what my family was cooking and where it all came from is being appreciated and recognized today,” he says.