“Japonais is a culinary experience that blends immense enjoyment with sturdy savoir faire,” declared former Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno, writing of the sleek Asian eatery near the edge of the Chicago River. While one coexecutive chef, Jun Ichikawa, lends his expertise to the sushi side of the restaurant’s menu, the other, Gene Kato, designs its selection of hot plates. Together, they churn out traditional and modern dishes—such as the house-specialty Kobe prime rib and Le Quack Japonais, a house-smoked duck slathered in hoisin sauce and mango chutney—whose appeal led Condé Nast to name their establishment one of the top 66 restaurants in the world. Ingredients from both surf and turf star at the sushi bar, which serves options such as spicy king-crab nigiri and a Crazy Veggie roll that insists on wearing its lab coat and goggles at all times. As selections emerge from the kitchen, says Bruno, “the presentations … are elegant … the shapes and swoops of the plates are a feast for the eyes.” The two dining rooms at Japonais meld industrial Japanese design with a touch of European richness. Squares of gold velvet frame an oversize mirror that hangs over the Red Room, the restaurant’s more formal dining space. Across the hall, the Green Room’s slate-and-brick fireplace and whimsical tree centerpieces that occasionally don sweatpants add to its more relaxed atmosphere. Wavy ceiling panels and Lucite chandeliers accentuate the high ceilings that unite the two spaces, hanging over a staircase that leads downstairs to the riverwalk café. There, sheer drapery panels frame views of the Chicago River for those seated on pillow-laden couches and chairs. As they lounge, guests can sip specialty cocktails or enlist the top-shelf liquors to help them win gargling contests against the river.
When executive chef Toyoji Hemmi surveys the restaurant's daily deliveries of fresh seafood, he envisions how the fish can be used to create exciting, new sushi entrees instead of just the widely expected staples. Food & Wine magazine praised this dedication to inventive flavor combinations in 2005, labeling chef Hemmi an "innovator" and calling him one of its "favorite iconoclasts" in the United States.
He accentuates maki with seemingly disparate ingredients—including rosemary, walnuts, and cherry tomatoes—that add new dimensions to the rolls' familiar tastes, textures, and pronunciations. Established Japanese flavors remain at the forefront of other items though, such as the wasabi-rubbed filet mignon and the organic cha-soba noodles. This distinctive interplay between contemporary and traditional approaches helped to earn the menu a score of "very good to excellent" from Zagat.
The dining room's vaguely industrial setting also toes the line between contemporary and historic, featuring rustic brick walls and exposed wooden rafters as well as chic, low-slung chairs and modern track lighting. Diners can peek behind the stone-countered sushi bar and watch the chefs assemble platters of maki and nigiri, or join the bartenders, who pass their evenings pouring tastes of sake and shochu.
Centerstage Chicago reviewer Kate Schwartz noted that, after the move to Restaurant Row from its former Gold Coast location, Dragonfly Mandarin "has staked its claim among some of Chicago's culinary elite." It has done so with the help of Executive Chef Michael Lin, who crafts authentic Chinese and Asian dishes with high-end ingredients such as flank steak and king prawns. From the unctuously decadent—pork-belly ramen soup with poached eggs—to the crisp and refreshing—cucumber-mint salad with ponzu sauce—the entrees step up to impress his patrons' taste buds, as evidenced by the Best of Citysearch award for Chinese food in 2007 and an OpenTable Diners' Choice award for Asian food. The decor is as sleek and sophisticated as the upscale cuisine. On the first floor, elegantly fanned umbrellas protect the walls from fumbled chopsticks. Long, ornate lanterns illuminate the balcony at the top of the stairway to the second floor, where club lights and a dance floor facilitate good times in the late-night lounge. Behind the wooden bar, Kabuki-like masks wear dramatic expressions, peering at guests in plush, red banquettes as they drink in tunes emanating from the DJ booth.
When Miae Lim opened Mirai Sushi, she sought to create a lounge setting just as fashionable as the haute sushi dishes that would be served there, resulting in an ambiance which Frommer's labels "decidedly youthful" and "funky-chic." It's within this hip atmosphere that diners sup on the shareable plates and seasonal fish of a menu pioneered by master chef Jun Ichikawa. Like a working cold-fusion machine at an eighth-grade science fair, the menu's shrimp-and-ginger dumplings and panko-breaded shrimp rolls attract praise; these and other dishes have earned the eatery inclusion on Gayot's 2012 list of Top 10 Japanese Restaurants in Chicago. In the downstairs dining room, wooden tables and chairs gather around an L-shaped sushi bar. Upstairs, ambient light glows above low lounge seating, where diners sip imported Japanese beers or specialty cocktails made with sake and fresh fruit juices. Celebrities sometimes stop by, blending in with the hip crowd and dodging autograph requests from activists who think that famous people's signatures count for double on petitions.
Macku Chan clearly knows sushi. His inventive presentations, however, might make his guests question whether or not they do. In the past 15 years, he has presided over essential Chicagoland Japanese restaurants including Mirai Sushi, Heat, and the acclaimed Kaze. At his latest self-titled eateries in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, he filters the classic Japanese dishes he's previously mastered through his imagination, and what comes out the other side runs the gamut from sweet to smokey. Panko-crusted cod, for instance, arrives drizzled with chocolate miso, whereas fried basil and cheese top the freshwater-eel maki to up its flavor ante. At Macku, even commonplace California rolls find new life with crowns of roe atop their cucumber and avocado heads. Such imaginative sushi creations earned the Lincoln Park space a Zagat food rating of 25.
As for the difference between Macku's restaurants, it's largely cosmetic. While the original Lincoln Park spot is cozier, the Lakeview location has enough space to host private parties or fulfill orders for giant pallets of bulk sushi.
Equal parts sophisticated seafood restaurant, innovative sushi bar, and down-home oyster joint, Shaw’s Crab House has something for seafood palates of all stripes. The chefs base the expansive menu on what’s in season and available fresh. Dishes might incorporate Lake Michigan whitefish, Atlantic yellowfin tuna, Nantucket Cape scallops, or Alaskan king crab. Just-shucked oysters hit plates in myriad varieties, from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, and star in the signature Oyster Shooter cocktail—a spicy concoction of an oyster, Absolut Peppar vodka, cocktail sauce, and Tabasco. Shaw’s sushi chef rolls specialty makis, including the Godzilla roll, which combines tempura shrimp, avocado, barbecue eel, smoked salmon, and tobiko and imparts the ability to roar blue flames. He also plates rice-free rolls, such as the spicy lobster roll filled with Maine lobster and avocado. As diners dig in at tables shrouded in crisp white cloths, the dining room plays host to blues-based live music, which fills the space every night of the week.