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Posts Tagged ‘liver’

I’m just not as young as I used to be. I can tell that I was at an izakaya last night because all of that sake floating around my liver is taking its toll. However, slow-moving Saturdays usually mean fun Friday nights.

A group of Yuki’s co-workers got together last night for food and drinks at Chizakaya, a newly opened izakaya here in Chicago. Actually, it’s probably the only real izakaya in town. While there are a few places claiming to be izakayas, they’re really just sushi places. Chizakaya doesn’t serve any sushi at all. I first heard of Chizakaya a few months ago when my mom sent me an article in the Huffington Post about the very fact that there aren’t any real izakaya’s in Chicago, until now. It also mentioned that the group that opened Chizakaya came from L2O, arguably Chicago’s finest seafood restaurant. Naturally, it made the list of places I wanted to go. With Yuki’s group meeting there last night I took the opportunity and ran with it.

I got there before the rest of the group, except for the two white guys in her work team (everyone else is Japanese). We sat at the bar and had a glass of sake while waiting for everyone else. I will say that the bartender knows his sake! It’s not a huge sake list, but a very well put together one with a good variety at all price points. He also gave us each a sample of sweet potato shochu, something none of us have ever had. It’s actually quite good.

Once everyone showed up they took us to the back room at one of the two big tables. I like it much better back there because the kitchen is open and the atmosphere is a little more izakaya-like.

Our waitress was also well-trained in the art of sake flavors as well as their menu. True to being an izakaya, the menu is based on small plates and nibbles to go along with drinking. We ordered a bunch of things and just grabbed and ate as we went, along with numerous bottles of sake. Since I’m drinking for 3, I’m struggling to keep my eyes focused as I write this.

As we sat they brought out little bowls of miso soup. Really good miso, they got the ratio of miso-to-dashi right. Instead of wakame which is typically put in miso soup they used hijiki.

Japanese sweet potato fries with spiced mayo.

Puffed pig ears with togarashi soy dipping sauce. Move over potato chips, these little cracklins are fantastic!

Crispy pork with a slow poached egg.

Pork shoulder gyoza. The gyoza could have been a little bit crispier, but the braised pork shoulder filling more than made up for that shortcoming.

Oysters with bacon and shishito. I don’t know if the bacon was over smoked or if they added a little liquid smoke, but there was a bit too much smokiness to this one. The natural sweetness of the beautiful little oysters was lost. Cut back on the smoke and this one is a winner.

Grilled ika togarashi with a yuzu vinaigrette. This was some of the most tender squid I’ve had in Chicago.

This was one of the night’s specials, duck liver karaage with scallions. Little deep-fried nuggets of ducky deliciousness!

Home-made basket tofu with bonito flakes, scallions, ginger, and soy sauce. You haven’t had tofu until you’ve had a really good home-made tofu. This was a really good home-made tofu. Totally different beast than the store-bought packaged tofu. Very clean, very light, very tasty.

Crispy-braised lamb belly with chopped edamame. This one was another of the night’s specials and quite honestly, one of the most special dishes I’ve ever eaten! I’ve never had lamb belly before and after eating it am wondering why. You see pork belly everywhere as it’s one of the more trendy cuts of meat these days. As much as I love pork belly, and I do love pork belly, I’d drop it in a heartbeat to sink my teeth into some lamb belly. That layer of belly fat may be the most lamby of all lamb flavors that animal has. I absolutely luz it! The only thing that would have made this dish better would be to puree the edamame into a thick sauce instead of leaving it chunky. Otherwise it was perfect.

Now, I’ll show you all of the kushi-yaki (grilled skewers of meat) that we had.

Chicken skin, mother of schmaltz how I love thee!

Chicken meatballs.

Chicken gizzards, next to liver and sweetbreads my favorite offal.

Beef heart, surprisingly tender and juicy for such a hard-working and lean muscle.

Beets with shiso, both red and golden.

We also ordered a the ramen and oden. Both of which were, quite honestly, very disappointing.

The ramen came with braised pork, fish balls, a slow poached egg, radish, bamboo shoot, shredded scallions, and some nori. The ingredients were all top-notch, but the noodles were overcooked and soft while the broth wasn’t quite were it needed to be. With everything else so high quality I wonder why they’re using regular old store-bought quality noodles. This bowl of ramen just wasn’t up to standards. If it’s ramen you want, head over to Arami instead.

The oden wasn’t even close to what oden is. Oden should be a dashi broth filled with various fish cakes, potato, hard-boiled eggs, konyakku, etc. It’s something that we make at home a couple of times every winter. This was nowhere near oden. This was a soy-based dashi with overcooked soba noodles, a few spinach leaves, a couple of pieces of potato, some slices of radish, and a few adzuki beans. It wasn’t a terrible noodle soup, but they shouldn’t call it oden and they should be more careful with the noodles.

Now, on to desserts, which were all very creative and well-prepared.

Yuzu cake with green tea ice cream.

Tofu cheese cake with kuro mitsu (black honey) and adzuki bean sorbet. Usually you see adzuki bean ice cream, making it a sorbet was a nice touch.

Chocolate ganache with puffed barley and black sesame ice cream.

I will say, that all three desserts are among the best desserts I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant.

Overall, Chizakaya is a fun atmosphere with great food. There were a couple of lows, oversmoked bacon and poor noodle soups, but the rest of the food was outstanding. Don’t come here expecting a substantial sit-down meal. Come here expecting a great list of sake, beer, and cocktails with delicious small plates and skewers to match. In that sense, this is a true izakaya. They also use top quality ingredients from local sustainable farms, and you can taste the difference. I will definitely go back, I just have to be more mindful of the amount of sake that I guzzle.

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Last weekend I did a little searching to try to find the best ramen noodles in Chicago. It’s damn near impossible to find a good, authentic bowl of Japanese ramen in this town as all Japanese restaurants seem to be the same neighborhood sushi joint serving up Americanized sushi (ie- California Roll, Dragon Roll, Philly Roll, etc.). While that’s all well and good, what I wanted was ramen!

While searching online I came across very positive reviews of newly opened (only about 3 weeks old) Arami on Chicago just west of Wood. Billed as an authentic Japanese restaurant in my neighborhood I got a little excited, tingly you might say. Not really in the mood to cook last night I decided to take Yuki out and give Arami a go. Very wise decision indeed.

The decor is true to Japanese philosophy, very simple and natural. The entrance is a big torii (traditional Japanese gate) and sets the atmosphere off right. The walls are very light, somewhere between eggshell and wasabi green, but more on the eggshell side. The tables are bamboo and the fixtures look to be made of reclaimed wood. I especially like the bar. It’s just a big slab of tree trunk.

Service was excellent. Usually, when a restaurant first opens up, the service is the worst part of the experience. The place ran like a veteran. Our server, Tiffany, was very knowledgable of the menu and very attentive without being annoying. Food came out in timely order and nothing was rushed.

As I get to the food I want to apologize as I usually do when posting pics from my phone. They are terrible! I do my best to make the food visible, but my phone’s camera is a piece of  junk. Keep that in mind and don’t let my pics deter you.

We started off with the Togarashi Seared Tuna. A beautiful strip of tuna coated in togarashi and seared perfectly, about a millimeter cooked all around the edges with the center completely raw. There were 6 pieces served on top of a seaweed and kelp salad with a meyer lemon dressing. The seaweed and kelp salad was excellent. A lot of times seaweed salads are just dripping with vinegar. Not this one. Perfectly dressed and a nice compliment to the natural fat of the tuna and mild spice of the togarashi.

Next, we got the Akami Ankimo. Akami is the red part of blue fin tuna and ankimo is monkfish liver (one of my all-time favorite ingredients). The slices of akimi sashimi (you could tell that they were cut by professionals who understand the subtlety of cutting fish) topped with small slices of ankimo and some sort of sliced green. Yuki thought it was a kind of pepper, but I think it’s just the green part of scallions. Doesn’t matter whose right, it was outstanding! Too bad Arami doesn’t yet have a liquor license as sake would have matched this perfectly.

For an entrée Yuki got the Kimchi Ramen. Hands down the best ramen I’ve ever tasted in this city! The broth was maybe a little too light to be considered authentic (in Japan the best part about ramen is all of the gelatin from using bones to make the broth, your lips should feel a little greasy), but the flavor was fantastic. Thick chunks of pork belly, cubes of tofu, sliced kimchi (not an authentic Japanese flavoring for ramen, but a delicious one), a par-boiled egg with a nice runny yolk, and sliced scallions for garnish. The only real problem is that it’s too hot in Chicago right now to eat ramen. Yuki was sweating a little from eating it. That didn’t stop her though as it was friggin fantastic.

When ever I see short rib on a menu there’s a very high likelihood that’s what I’m getting. Combine that with my love for all things donburi and I had to get the Short Rib Donburi. I really nice short rib braised in a soy-based broth served on top of rice. To counter the fattiness of the meat they serve it with sliced pickled asian pear and scallions. The rib was very tender and the broth flavors almost penetrated completely through. I’m glad it didn’t to preserve the natural flavors of the meat itself. Another winner in my book.

Dessert is the one area they fell short on. The only two options were the typical mochi ice cream balls or three different gelatos. I asked if the gelato was made in-house and Tiffany said it wasn’t. We still opted for the gelato though. They had three flavors (green tea, ginger-lemon, and muscato) and you get two scoops per order. We were told that we could only pick one flavor, but Tiffany talked the chef into letting us have two, so we got the green tea and ginger-lemon. The green tea was terrible! Overly sweet and very chunky. It was not a good product and they need to get rid of it immediately! The ginger-lemon, however, was great. Not too sweet, nice and creamy. They could do more with desserts though. I’m tired of every Japanese restaurant serving mochi ice cream and ice cream. There are so many things that can be done with Japanese ingredients to make great, simple desserts. Green Tea Pot De Creme with Adzuki Ganache was an idea I gave Tiffany. She seemed to like that idea, so hopefully she can get the chef to open his mind and make some real desserts. You don’t have to be a pastry chef to make good desserts.

At any rate, Arami is our new favorite Japanese restaurant in Chicago. While we didn’t try a lot of the sushi, we could see that they know what they’re doing. We will definitely be back over and over again, especially once they get a liquor license as I was told they’ll have a killer sake list! Sushi and sake, sounds good to me.

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Alright, back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Better known as Japan. Yuki was at a gathering with a bunch of her friends one of the Saturday nights we were there last November. Instead of hanging out with her parents, whom I love to spend time with, I met up with an ex-coworker of hers that I am also friends with, Reiko-chan, who moved back to Tokyo. We decided to meet up at the Ebisu train station and then head to one of the many Izakaya in that neighborhood. Izakaya are Japanese-style bars. Much different from what we’re used to they usually have a great chef that focuses on creative small bites that match with different types of alcohol. I had done some research and found this great little Izakaya called Ippo that focused on seafood and sake, my drink of choice.

Ippo is an extremely hard place to find. We walked all over the neighborhood for about 30 minutes trying to find it. Since Reiko is Japanese, and being Japanese speaks Japanese, I left it to her to ask various retail stores for directions. No one seemed to know exactly where it was even though we had an address. About to give up and go to a different Izakaya, I turned around and noticed the big Fugu hanging in front of the door. Finally! I needed some sake!

When we sat down the bartender handed us each a couple of little starters. One was a cold pork and green bean salad, the other was a macaroni salad in a mayonnaise dressing. Nice little starters, good with either a beer or sake.

Speaking of sake, their list was over fifty long, all written in Japanese. I had no idea where to start. Luckily, one of the bartenders lived in Las Angeles for a while and spoke fluent English. He also knew that sake list off the back of his hand. There were all varieties of sake from brewers both large and small as well as from every region of Japan that produces it. I honestly can’t remember what all I drank, but throughout the night I ended up putting back 4 cups of different sake, all delicious in their own way. Some more floral, some herbal, some sweeter, all fantastic selections. When I say 4 cups I don’t mean those little sake cups we’re used to getting at sushi joints, I mean 4 12oz cups filled to the rim! Love it!

We started off with a plate of sashimi. I don’t know all of the different types, some of the communication was lost in translation, but there were two kinds of tuna and three different kinds of hamachi. I do remember that they were all fresh as can be (they get their fish every morning from the Tsukiji Market) and cut by a chef who knows how to cut a piece of fish. You can’t get sashimi that good here in Chicago.

After the sashimi we got a plate of the house specialty, Namero. It’s basically a tartare of mackerel in miso, ginger, and scallions. Mackerel is a strong-tasting fish with a lot of natural oil, but this was incredible! The miso and ginger masked the strong fishy smell and fit the flavors perfectly. I can see why this is a house specialty as it was probably the best match with sake I’ve ever had.

Then we got the Daigaku Imo, candied sweet potatoes. These were prepared different than normal though. They’re usually deep fried and then coated in a sweetened soy sauce with black sesame seeds. Here, they lightly coated them in batter that had black seseame seeds mixed in before frying, basically tempura style. The were sweet enough that they didn’t need any added sugar. Served only with some grated daikon they were a great snack to eat at a bar.

Kaki was next up. Some of the biggest, juiciest oysters I’ve ever seen on a plate! Removed from the shells and grilled all the chef did was add some herbs to them. With a squeeze of lemon they’re ready to go. If you’re a fan of oysters, you’d love these. If you hate oysters, you’d still probably love these.

After the Kaki we ordered up some Ankimo. Steamed monkfish liver served with grated daikon, ponzu, and green onions this is one of the great delicacies of Japanese cuisine. It’s called the foie gras of the sea, but in all honesty, I think foie gras should be called the ankimo of the land. It’s so soft and creamy. If not for the next dish I’d call it Japan’s greatest contribution to the world of food.

Here it is, one of the greatest things in the world. An item that will make most Americans sick to their stomach but makes my mouth water…Shirako. The king of seafood. Meaning “white children” in Japanese, shirako is the soft roe of male fish, usually monkfish, cod, or fugu (pufferfish). Basically, it’s the male fish’s genitalia. You read that right, it’s a fish sperm sack! You may be wincing at the thought of eating that, but think about it, you eat caviar don’t you? Well, this is the male counterpart to caviar. It’s extremely soft and delicate with a slightly sweet briny taste that literally melts in your mouth (and it’s not sticky!). Ippo serves it raw with ponzu, scallions, and sesame seeds. It can also be steamed. Any way you look at it, I luz me some fish balls!

My experience at Ippo really makes me sad that we have nothing like this in Chicago, or really anywhere in America for that matter. Sure, there are a handful of Izakaya-style bars throughout the country (mostly on the west coast), but nothing quite like Ippo. Just a long bar in a hidden space that serves up some of the best quality seafood and sake one could ever ask for. Why are we stuck with bars that serve nothing but big greasy burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), frozen wings, and chicken fingers? Let’s get some creativity into the American bar scene! Great chefs don’t need to be in a white cloth atmosphere to shine. We’d all be better off for it there were Izakayas scattered throughout the country.

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