Just like pizza, there’s no such thing as bad sushi. It certainly seems that way anyway, considering the endless proliferation of sashimi, nigiri, and maki in everything from drugstores to gas stations.
That isn’t true, of course. Even putting aside issues of spoilage and sustainability (for now), there’s crappy sushi everywhere you look, and it’s a notable thing when a restaurant comes around that attempts to work outside the overflowing chum bucket that prevails in Chicago.
Juno, the return to the game for former Arami chef B.K. Park and former Urban Union general manager Jason Chan, is making an attempt. You can see in Juno’s little details that it aspires to be, and may well one day become, the preeminent sushi restaurant in Chicago. The rice used for the maki and nigiri is Tamaki Gold, premium California short-grain that’s probably the finest available in the United States. There are no bottles of soy sauce at the table, and servers don’t reflexively deliver every piece of serviceware with a blob of wasabi on the side, all the better for you to appreciate the sea creatures.
And the sea creatures themselves, in combination with that rice, are in many cases outstanding, something shockingly apparent with a simple uni nigiri. These pumpkin-colored urchin gonads are served a bit too cold, but they are sweet, creamy, and embody the very taste of the sea, having been pulled from the waters off Santa Barbara, where God goes diving for echinoderms.
Good rice, good fish, and proper service also were in effect at Arami, the Wicker Park sushi bar that Park abruptly left last June, leaving a devoted fan base bereft and frighteneded, wondering where the best sushi south of Peterson Avenue could now be found.
It turns out two contenders opened not too far away: the Ukrainian Village’s Kai Zan, and the Gold Coast’s Masaki, two very different approaches, especially in terms of price point. Juno fits somewhere in the middle. Inhabiting the former Merlo La Salumeria, in Lincoln Park, it is currently booming, which has led to executional and service issues that have so far prevented it from reaching its full potential.
The long black sushi bar in the rear dining room, manned by four chefs including Park, is capable of producing some very pretty and desirable sashimi arrangements, fanned out like flower blossoms on ice-filled glass orbs. The same goes for the specialty maki, lined up along handmade wooden service pieces (inexplicably accompanied by cheap disposable chopsticks). But despite the fine presentation, those maki can arrive sloppily rolled or unevenly cut, indicating the chefs sometimes aren’t taking their time.
Conceptually, Park shows restraint in his specialty rolls relative to most of his mayo-and-cream-cheese-squirting contemporaries. These uramaki (the kind with the rice on the outside) are rolled with one or two central ingredients and minimally topped with judicious garnishing. Even the more cosmetically garish ones, like a spicy-tuna-topped eel and tamago roll crowned by a dollop of blueberry compote, make a crazy kind of sense. But some seem almost too restrained. The quality of rice really comes into play when nothing in a soft-shell crab, avocado, asparagus, flounder, and eel roll really distinguishes itself.
None of this should suggest that the restaurant is immune to shtick. “Charcoal handrolls” involve a small burning brazier meant to heat squares of seaweed that accompany small dishes bearing lobster and rice or tuna and rice. Essentially these are roll-your-own temaki, a rather insulting concept for cuisine in which training, experience, and execution are considered paramount. “Smoked sashimi”—individual bits of yellowtail, tuna, or salmon enveloped with a cloud of applewood smoke under a glass dish cover—is a bit of Moto-esque drama that smells nice and would be harmless if not for the $10 price tag for two tiny bites.
The kitchen, fronted by former Leopold chef Jeffrey Hedin, is responsible for a selection of hot and cold appetizers and a few higher-ticket entrees based on premium proteins (king crab, lobster, Wagyu). A delicately spicy bowl of clams, mussels, pork sausage, bok choy, and potato takes its cue from Logan Square’s Portuguese-Chinese mashup Fat Rice, while more artfully constructed and well-balanced plates include a delicately seared miso-rubbed halibut fillet with a pureed sunchoke understory brightened by kumquat slivers and mustard spinach, or grilled baby octopus tentacles tangled among artichoke hearts, preserved lemon, and bright green edamame.
There’s also ramen, which any new restaurant with Japanese pretensions is now required to offer. Bowls stocked with duck confit or pork belly are based on a thin, bodyless pork broth, and each was filled with a just barely solidified egg and floury, undercooked noodles. The latter complication surely resulted from an overwhelmed kitchen, and contributes to the case for future legislation dictating that restaurants should not serve ramen unless it’s mostly all they serve—just as restaurants should not serve sushi unless that’s mostly all they serve.
Juno is incredibly busy at the moment, and some members of the staff have been unable to keep pace, leading to servers that on occasion seem disinterested in discussing the menu and are hurried and dismissive in approach.
Finally, I can’t write about sushi anymore without pointing out the great white whale in the dining room. The fish that people are so greedily gobbling up, from the prized fatty otoro to the luscious unagi, are disappearing from the waters. Park isn’t any different from many other chefs in town, in that there’s plenty of tuna on his menu. I single him out only because he’s the latest to contribute to a distant crisis for which anyone who consumes endangered fish is equally culpable. There’s an argument that sushi, and especially prized fish like bluefin tuna, is meant to be special—that it should be expensive and eaten rarely. Juno isn’t cheap, and it isn’t serving cheaply made sushi. But it isn’t yet to the point where it’s extraordinarily special either.