Maybe you didn’t realize this but the reason it’s called a rainbow roll is because it’s supposed to look like a rainbow. Most sushi restaurants construct this ignoble makimono in such a way that it resembles not so much a moisture-dispersed alignment of the color spectrum as a rag someone would wear to a Phish show.
The revelation came to me at Naoki, Lettuce Entertain You’s secluded sushi restaurant hidden behind the kitchen at Intro in Lincoln Park’s Belden Stratford apartments. There I sat at the bar and watched rainbow after perfect rainbow pass over the top as if the chefs were unicorns on laxatives.
Pretty as they are, why so many of these crab-cored columns of tuna, salmon, hamachi, and avocado, I wondered, when chef Naoki Nakashima and his minions are capable of sculpting far more subtle and exquisite wonders working with single species?
Nakashima has been something of a sleeper agent in Empire Lettuce for some years now, handling the serviceable if prosaic sushi operations for Shaw’s Crab House in River North and Tokio Pub in Schaumburg. He wasn’t even tapped to lead this adventure back when LEYE announced Juno‘s now-estranged partners, B.K. Park and Jason Chan, would take it over.
That wasn’t the first time Lettuce struggled to find purpose for the late L2O’s hushed private dining room where Laurent Gras once served cured escolar with espelette and mussels in coconut gelee to Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert. Now it’s congested and loud, especially compared to Intro’s muted dining room. Don’t get seated between the pillar and the water pitchers; the worst seat in the house (call it the go-fuck-yourself table) will make the fine fish taste like bait. But if you’re lucky enough to get closer to the action, you can see all the piscine loveliness coming from behind that bar.
Nakashima’s signature here is the composed sashimi plate. Five pieces of perfect, glistening fish, arranged like flower petals, with a delicate garnish or two and a light sauce, maybe a bit of oil, perhaps a shiso leaf and a few microplaned root vegetables as a centerpiece. So you might receive thick, buttery sections of scallop crowned with paper-thin slices of serrano pepper and jiggling orbs of roe bathed in a light, barely perceptible yuzu-infused dashi (a Japanese broth), a few squiggles of vivid green shiso oil breaking up the negative space. There are rosy slabs of madai, Japanese sea bream, arranged as if swimming on the surface of mushroom dashi, each topped with a pair of tiny shimeji mushroom caps. Or take a semicircle of sweet chilled lobster, kissed with gingery soy and topped with pickled radishes. In each case, Nakashima’s Japanese-appropriate dressings don’t fuck with the integrity of the fish.
It’s a sensible, noninvasive way to treat high-quality sea creatures. Nakashima gives the same subtle treatment to the specialty sashimi and nigiri: slabs of scarlet bluefin tuna with a whisper of soy, topped with dabs of black-olive tapenade and pureed edamame. So long as chefs insist on serving this overfished species, you might try to restore balance to the universe (if not the ocean) by choosing instead the light, almost translucent (and sustainable) mackerel, its skin shining like armor, dressed with just a touch of citric yuzu-chile paste. Pink hamachi is spotted with oniony puree, while the lush fattiness of red salmon is given a lick of smoked soy and textured with a scrap of crispy fried shallot.
While these pieces are oceans away from the overembellished monstrosities many sushi chefs use to disguise bad fish, you can opt for even more minimal options, as well as flashier ones. But the operating principle is restraint, which doesn’t mean the subordinate details can’t be pretty special too. The tamago at the core of a salmon-miso maki and a separate unagi maki is probably the smoothest omelet I’ve come across in a sushi bar. The black-garlic sauce that may streak across the plate between two maki is there only if you want it. (It would make a good salad dressing.) Fresh wasabi, available for an upcharge, is grated, as per custom, on sharkskin.
Don’t overlook or hesitate on specials. Every time I got around to the uni, it had already sold out.
There are a few larger main plates: lobster, chicken teriyaki, and miso sea bass—but these seem ancillary compared to the more thoughtful appetizers such as tuna tacos, edamame “guac,” and truffle chawanmushi, whose faint fungal character fails to live up to its promise, barely registering over the properly silky custard.
A surprisingly abbreviated selection of sakes and beers competes with a much larger wine list, though the seven Japanese whiskeys are far more intriguing, and a few cocktails, namely a pleasantly cheesy miso old-fashioned and the Six Corner Sling, fueled by rye and chartreuse, are worth a sip.
Service at this point is woefully harried—unless you’re sitting at the bar, often staffed with four to five chefs who can provide one of the more efficient and exuberant sushi experiences in the city (even on occasions when LEYE chef Jean Joho is mysteriously glowering in the background). Lettuce’s penchant for gimmicky themes is blessedly absent, mirroring Nakashima’s approach to sushi: focused, reverent, but still a lot of fun. v