Masaharu Morimoto arrived in Chicago a few months ago like a lot of telegenic chefs who decide to launch satellites into the Chicagosphere: with plenty of advance warning.
The Iron Chef threw out the first pitch at a White Sox game last August when it was announced he was signing on to the dusty ten-year-old French-Japanese restaurant Japonais. Among his various local news appearances, he hugged a sushi-scarfing Fox News reporter on camera. And the newly rebranded Japonais by Morimoto reopened with a charity event worked by a bunch of nationally known local chefs and attended by a bunch of comped food-media types, their cameras blazing.
By the time I got around to eating there, he wasn’t personally serving the omakase menu to anyone at the sushi bar much anymore, or performing any sake ceremonies in the restaurant’s lounge. If I’ve properly interpreted his Twitter feed, he was spending much more time in places like Dubai, Miami, and Japan. It may be that Morimoto is just like every other out-of-town celebrity chef who parachutes into town just long enough to put a shine on a place and ease investor anxieties. With an empire of 11 restaurants worldwide, he has plenty of fish to fillet, and he can’t stick around forever. Does the luster dull when the star is no longer around? We’ll see.
It’s not like pre-Morimoto Japonais wasn’t an established concern: a glammy celebrity hangout, it nonetheless fostered the significant talents of Gene Kato, now quietly kicking ass at the relatively minimal Sumi Robata Bar. But Japonais’s interior makeover and a complete overhaul of its menu in Morimoto’s name make further comparisons to the original moot.
Maybe this one’s more instructive: Last week I reviewed a new restaurant called Kinmont, which is doing all the right things in terms of serving sustainable seafood in thoughtfully conceived dishes. And yet the kitchen hadn’t been able to execute them consistently well. Japonais by Morimoto is the antithesis of Kinmont, serving with abandon overfished species such as freshwater eel, yellowtail, and, worst of all, bluefin tuna, the irresistible taste of extinction. And it’s serving many of them in outlandish, seemingly obnoxious preparations—many of these extremely well.
One of Morimoto’s more well-known dishes comprises five different fish—fatty bluefin belly, eel, smoked salmon, tuna, and yellowtail—formed into bite-size sashimi terrines cut into parallelograms and stacked next to five pipettes filled with different sauces. How anyone is supposed to appreciate the integrity and beauty of each piece of fish in this inharmonious dish, let alone figure out what to do with the garnishes, is a mystery. But that’s a rare example of Morimoto’s strange vision failing.
If you choose to ignore your nagging conscience, his highly lauded tuna pizza is a circle of flatbread covered with meaty slabs of blood-red fish, crosshatched with streaks of anchovy aioli and dotted with sliced jalapeño. More like the savory pancake known as okonomiyaki than pizza, it’s actually a delicate appetizer that respects the fish.
And that’s the case with most shareable plates and entrees that aren’t sushi or sashimi. No matter how ridiculous things look on paper, they tend to make sense in execution with surprising frequency. Pork gyoza dumplings connected by a lacy skirt of batter are inverted in a dish atop a fairly respectable Italian puttanesca sauce and surrounded by a moat of bacon foam. It seems like cross-cultural pollution, but in reality it’s just fried ravioli in an unusual context. You might never dream of adulterating beautiful, sweet king crab legs in buttery Korean spicy-soybean sauce until a plate was set before you here. A bowl of uni carbonara—sea urchin and thin udonlike noodles tossed with English peas and bacon—looks like plastic novelty vomit, but you won’t find a more luxurious dish of pasta in the city
Those same silky noodles star in a bowl of simple but intensely rich chicken noodle soup. Maybe the key to the success of so many of these dishes is that at their very heart they’re rooted in sound fundamentals, much like that soup. One of the most opulent—yet inexpensive and simple—appetizers comes in a stone bowl of tofu prepared tableside. A server pours a coagulant into hot soy milk and covers it, warning that sometimes the magic fails to happen. Meanwhile, he sets the table with dishes of kimchi, dashi, and other condiments, and by the time he’s finished, the curd has (hopefully) set and is ready to be scooped into your own bowl and customized.
Servers like to brag about the rice, which comes into the kitchen brown, then is polished white in-house. It makes all the difference in the world with dishes like a monstrous, tender braised lamb shank resting on a bed of the stuff transformed into a crispy risotto, or a sizzling-hot stone bowl of the grains tossed with raw hamachi, mountain herbs, and spinach, or a bowl of duck confit fried rice topped with a sunny-side up egg.
But the rice’s best possible use—and the pinnacle of Japonais by Morimoto’s achievements—is when it meets raw fish. Where much of Morimoto’s menu is flash and dazzle (wagyu-and-lobster-masala surf and turf, foie-gras-and-uni-topped steamed oysters), sea creatures are treated simply and respectfully, and served at the proper temperature (i.e., closer to body temperature than oceanic). And this is some of the finest, freshest sushi and sashimi I’ve encountered in the city. If you’re a person who thinks you don’t like sea urchin, I beg you to spend the $8 to experience the ephemerally sweet specimens Japonais is serving. If you’re a person who can justify a taste of belly from the bluefin, this is the place to forget about the market price and order a single piece of otoro—then beg Mother Earth for forgiveness. But even if you want to eat responsibly, less-threatened species like Japanese horse mackerel or squid are just as pristine, and uncommon offerings like pickled vegetables or the custardy egg kasutera are prepared with just as much precision.
There is a range of remarkable desserts to meet various levels of satiation, from a light, sweet “air cheesecake” souffle to a stygian dark-chocolate tart with salted caramel. But I’m voting the dessert menu’s coconut fritters the city’s most remarkable doughnut. The sweetness of these crispy coconut cubes with gooey interiors is balanced by dabs of sour cherry and passion fruit purees.
Commensurate with the sort of revenue-generating schemes that befit a figurehead like Morimoto, there’s a selection of his branded sakes as well as beers brewed in collaboration with Oregon Rogue Ales—a dark but surprisingly light-bodied hazelnut brew is unforgettable—as well as some rare, and expensive, Japanese whiskeys.
Even without dipping into those, you’ll find Japonais by Morimoto a pricey experience. But sushi should be dear and rare rather than cheap and plentiful. It’s also rare when an out-of-town chef comes to Chicago and manages not to condescend. That’s probably how Morimoto’s elevated Japonais to the very top of the food chain for raw fish in Chicago. And the chef’s wacky signature Japanese fusion? That’s not so bad either.