A's List: Chicago’s Obsession with Sushi
By Audarshia Townsend
I’ve always had this rule about sushi: the simpler the ingredients, the better. So, my test for any restaurant boasting sushi prowess is a spicy tuna roll. If they can throw together the perfect balance of tuna, spicy sauce and mayo-based wasabi aioli, they can count me as a fan.
While this is a starter point for me, there’s a lot more to enjoy on sushi menus. More than ever, in fact, as sushi-focused eateries compete by showcasing creative share-able offerings, robata-grilled meats and seafood, exotic cocktails and scenes flirting with nightlife accents.
From quaint neighborhood hangs to flashier spots in the heart of downtown, we gather some of Chicago's best sushi restaurants guaranteed to impress even the most discerning diner.
Why we love it. An especially popular destination for its authentic ramen offerings, Arami also boasts a fantastic list of traditional and contemporary nigiri, sashimi and maki delights. Presentations are grand and sometimes offbeat, but the best way to experience them is to order the chef's choice. Much of the seafood is sourced from Asia (think Korean fluke, Japanese red sea bream) and cocktails and sake are easily paired.
What to eat. Standout signature maki rolls include soft-shell crab and a trio maki of yellowtail, tuna, salmon and spicy mayo.
Why we love it. Logan Square’s Hachi's Kitchen is a big favorite among neighborhood residents. While conventional rolls like spicy tuna and California (avocado, crab stick, flying fish egg and cucumber) remain big hits, it's the more chef-driven offerings setting Hachi's apart from its competition.
What to eat. Hot bets include spicy creamy tako maki (chopped octopus mixed with fish egg, scallion & spicy sesame mayo) and volcano maki (creamy lobster mixed with wasabi & tobiko, topped with maki & spicy tempura crunch).
Why we love it. Considered the OG of sushi in the Windy City, Kamehachi debuted in 1967. It now boasts five locations in the city and suburbs, but it’s the original that has maintained a traditional Japanese vibe.
What to eat. The restaurant offers several signature, classic and vegetarian rolls, but one of the highlights is the sushi “boat,” which serves anywhere from six to 20 people. Chef-selected sashimi and maki rolls are served in a decorative boat, and prices range $60 to $350. It’s the best bet for those with larger parties to satisfy.
Why we love it. West Hollywood. Dubai. Chicago. There’s a reason why the Los Angeles-based restaurant collective decided to bring its upscale, yet clubby sushi lounge to the Windy City. It’s the best place for a forward-thinking concept. Located in River North directly across from the House of Blues, Katana’s generated much buzz for unique dishes and an ultra-sophisticated clientele. A deejay spins contemporary beats every weekend.
What to eat. Get yourself one of the hand rolls; you’ll thank us later. High on the priority list is the baked crab hand roll that’s stuffed with enough meat to keep you satisfied. The robata grill offerings are another great attraction. You cannot go wrong with ribeye, Brussels sprouts or the lamb chop topped with a little soy garlic.
Why we love it. The stylish West Loop concept is from the Boka Restaurant Group, which is also behind Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and Girl and the Goat. Momotaro's chefs feature small plates broken down into six sections (snacks, cold and warm appetizers, rice and noodles, salads and soup, from the coals and grilled skewers). The bottom floor of Momotaro is an izakaya, serving cocktails, Japanese whiskey, and sake, as well as a limited menu. It's accessible through the restaurant as well as from a separate outside door.
What to eat. The “makimono” sushi rolls are the more traditional features on the menu. Order the terra maki (bluefin tuna roll) or chili tuna (bigeye tuna, sesame cucumbers, pickled radish), but if you really want to go nuts, try the $35 A5 ebi uni maguro. That’s charred A5 Miyazaki beef, botan ebi, uni and bigeye tuna maki. The beverage menu focuses on Japanese beer, spirits, wine and cocktails with Japanese accents.
Why we love it. Dokku’s owners, Angela Hepler-Lee and Susan Thompson, are no strangers to this area—or sushi. In 2012, the duo shuttered the extremely popular Sushi Wabi, which was located directly across the street from their current venture. For more of a nightlife experience, diners should head to the basement level Booze Box for signature maki rolls, deejays spinning rare grooves, and a selection of Japanese street eats like the fried chicken.
What to eat. They’ve smartly incorporated some of the old signature rolls (e.g. Hot Daisy of Albacore, masago, spicy mayonnaise and cucumber on soy paper) with new attractions like "dressed nigiri bites" of smoked Atlantic salmon, Arctic Ocean mackerel and South Pacific sea bream accompanied by sauces.
Why we love it. The sassy little sister to Ramen-san, this casual, yet trendy sushi hang attracts mostly stylish, younger diners. Classic and contemporary hip-hop hits are the soundtrack and the backdrop is filled with quirky Japanese knickknacks and other trendy items. Sushi-san keeps techniques simple and aims to use as many premium ingredients as possible.
What to eat. The bulk of the menu is made with raw fish, which is transformed into craveable hand rolls, nigiri bombs and sashimi sets. Charcoal-grilled meats (e.g. prime skirt steak, miso salmon, Vietnamese pork) and vegetables, crispy tempura and late-night yakisoba pair with Japanese beer, Asian-influenced cocktails and more. Sizzling rice, which comes topped with roasted king crab, pork katsu nuggets or beef n' bop, is one of the biggest highlights of the menu.
See previous A's List columns right here.