Credit: Julia Thiel

Christian Ragano, chef at Cindy’s, in the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, says that yuzu is his favorite citrus fruit. So it was lucky for him that Kristine Antonian of Cherry Circle Room challenged him to create a dish with the Asian fruit. “It’s spectacular,” Ragano says. “Really floral, very tart, very sour, slightly sweet at the same time. It’s very hard to describe. You have to taste it for yourself.”

It’s also extremely expensive: Ragano says the last time he bought whole yuzu fruit, it cost about $200 for five pounds, and the Marugoto Shibori yuzu juice he favors runs about $80 a liter. Fortunately, a little goes a long way.

The first time Ragano tasted yuzu was when he was working at NoMi, where they used it to cure salmon. He still likes to use the fruit to prepare raw fish, substituting it for lemon or orange juice. For his challenge, though, he decided to experiment with yuzu and cooked fish. “I grew up, as a kid, eating smoked salmon on pumpernickel with a spread of butter, a slice of tomato, and pickled beets,” he says. “I hated it.”

Ragano still dislikes salmon, but that didn’t stop him from making it the centerpiece of his yuzu dish. Inspired partly by the sandwiches he ate growing up, partly by lox and bagels, he pan roasted a salmon fillet and served it with pumpernickel “soil” (toasted and ground pumpernickel bread with olive oil, salt, pepper, and caraway) and a yuzu and Greek yogurt sauce. And he didn’t forget the beets: Ragano prepared them two ways—roasted and raw. The raw beets he sliced thin and tossed with yuzu vinaigrette: yuzu juice, champagne vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and honey. For garnish he added sprigs of dill, which resembled blades of grass sprouting from the pumpernickel crumbs on the plate.

Tasting the dish, Ragano said, “The yuzu’s the acid that brightens everything up, connects all the flavors—the fattiness from the salmon, caraway with pumpernickel, earthiness from the beets.” It may even have made him change his mind about salmon. “I’m quite enjoying this,” he said after a few bites. “I’m not joking. And I hate salmon.”

Who’s next:
Ragano has challenged Aaron McKay, executive chef at the Blackstone Hotel (and formerly at Schwa), to create a dish with blade mace—the outer shell of the nutmeg fruit.