For all the Japanese restaurants that have opened in town over the past few years, it’s still a rare one that isn’t devoted to sushi or to drinking food. Named for a variety of squat, sweet Asian squashes, Kabocha—more Japanese-ish than strictly Japanese—is the second coming of Shin Thompson, who gave up the reins on his celebrated Logan Square prix fixe hole-in-the-wall, Bonsoiree, to open this “brasserie” with an a la carte menu of vaguely Eastern promise. It’s a more accessible restaurant than Bonsoiree, one for diners used to the extracasual shared-plates environments that have come close to dominating our food culture.
Kabocha boasts a raw bar just to the left of the entrance from which a market-price sashimi moriawase, or “combination,” is prepared, along with a very pretty tuna hamachi carpaccio that looks a bit like an artfully garnished slice of headcheese. But the most impressive product of this ten-seat bar is the “seafood aquarium,” Thompson’s answer to the ever-popular steak house showstopper known as the seafood tower. It’s arranged in a glass case set with pebbles and edible seaweed and crammed with crustaceans like a teeming tidal pool. It’s a splendid display, full of cold steamed lobster, cracked king crab legs, shrimp, oysters, and a shell full of scallop sashimi. Beet juice and squid ink combined with methylcellulose form corals from which deep-fried shrimp heads emerge, giving the scene an animated appearance.
Other items on the menu live up to the dramatic promise set by this $85 centerpiece. The one-bite scallop motoyaki appetizer, a carryover from Bonsoiree, remains as irresistible as always: crabmeat and sliced scallop on the half shell, smothered in creamy, ponzu-spiked aioli and put to the torch. There’s a colorful selection of vegetables—carrots, cauliflower, ramps, and turnip—pickled in the sweet Japanese style that pairs well with a Wagyu beef tartare, intensified by invisible powdered umeboshi, porcini, and seaweed, and served with brittle rice crackers. One of the best things on the menu could easily be written off as the bone thrown to the vegetarians: a slab of soft, custardy tofu, seared and served with roasted carrots, tiny lentils, and saffron-ginger gastrique.
But while duck confit pot stickers, garnished with dried citrus wheels and thin slabs of duck prosciutto, are almost juicy enough to be described as soup dumplings, the rabbit dumplings—nicely sour, as if fermented—are dry as a bone. Overcooking animal protein such as this seems to be a recurring problem. A pair of pork crepinettes—meatballs cooked in and ostensibly protected by a sleeve of caul fat—are unaccountably moistureless and underseasoned, and are hardly helped by a smear of white turnip espuma (aka foam). A duo of lamb sausage and kombu-cured lamb loin was the most perplexing dish I’ve encountered in recent memory. Garnished by parsnip “four ways,” the assemblage is piled messily all to one side of the plate, as if to distract from the tough loin and the sausage, which maintains the texture of encased sawdust. Some dishes are sabotaged by their plateware. A whole deep-fried fish—in my case an otherwise sweet and delicate yellowtail snapper—has its fillets separated and served off the skeleton, and is arranged attractively in a lacquered box; too bad the walls of the box don’t allow one to access the sweetish-spicy black bean chile sauce that coats its bottom.
Even some flawlessly executed dishes are unmemorable. A sharable shabu shabu course, featuring thinly shaved slices of rib eye meant to be cooked briefly in a simmering hot pot of dashi and mirin, offers a minimal approach that verges on the tedious. You just want to get it over with.
Among a trio of deserts, a savory-sweet vanilla–sesame ice cream is overwhelmed by a puddle of sour fruit sauce and a tasteless chocolate tuile, and an $8 pair of cubed, green-tea-dusted chocolate “truffles” are served amid a train wreck of meringue and strawberries. Wines are reasonably priced compared to a list of sweet, mild cocktails that will probably appeal to drinkers who don’t enjoy drinking. There are also a few beers, a few sakes, and a token few Japanese whiskeys.
All of this goes down in a large, West Loop corner space by the Morgan/Lake Green Line stop—a claustrophobic atmosphere with windows closed to the street and the dining room. It’s barely lit by fixtures that mimic the eponymous cucurbit and segregated from the bar, the raw bar, and the open kitchen.
I fear that with this new endeavor Thompson has fallen victim to the same fate that befalls most shared-plates enterprises. Attempting to appeal to as broad a swath of desires as possible is frequently the death of inspiration. And though Kabocha’s menu features swells of imagination, it doesn’t deliver by half.