This sultry ‘fall’ weather means one thing and one thing only: you’re clinically proven to be better looking after a meal at Katana.”
That was Michael Simon’s Facebook status at the blistering peak of last month’s unseasonable heat wave. Simon is the gifted, hilarious, and peripatetic barkeep who’s currently running the beverage side of things at Katana, a massive Japanese restaurant that took off in Hollywood and landed its second location in River North in early August.
I ate at Katana a few times right around then, and I looked tired, sweaty, and generally terrible. But that’s not Simon’s fault. On the other hand, his mezcal old-fashioned, Beerus the Destroyer, with Riesling-infused agave nectar and peach-and-allspice bitters, is a clear, potent, and sorcerously sweet elixir, just the sort of memorable cocktail he’s been making for years at spots like Acadia, Celeste, and Carriage House. I’m not fond of aggressively sweet cocktails, but this one was quite the pick-me-up.
Katana, named for the samurai sword you once bought from a Chinatown gift shop, is the second recently opened restaurant trying to sell some form of Hollywood fantasy to Chicago. (Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten Blvd.) It’s a development that couldn’t make me feel more protectively midwestern. For lovers of Japanese food, the arrival of this monument to aspirational narcissism—an outpost of LA-based Innovative Dining Group, which already had five concepts in a dozen locations—is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. It announced itself with a grand opening padded with celebrities four weeks ahead of the closing of Sumi Robata Bar, just a hop, skip, and a jump across the neighborhood. As Sumi did, Katana considers itself a robatayaki, but the two couldn’t be more different. At Sumi you could sit, mesmerized, directly in front of chef-owner Gene Kato as he grilled skewered chicken butts and beef tongue over white-hot binchotan charcoal with the intensity of a concert pianist. It was a contemplative, Zen-like experience. At the sprawling Katana you can get up close to the grill and the sushi bar, but you’re really just another face in the crowd. Anyway, you’re probably more interested in looking for the nightlife photographers.
From a design standpoint the place is interesting. Within its 13,000 square feet squats a massive square bar and lounge where you can make eyes at everyone in the dining room, which sits beneath a huge atrium of blond wooden beams that gives you the sense that you’re a dumpling sweating in a giant bamboo steamer.
The menu is almost as sizable, offering snacky vegetable starters, hot and cold dishes, sushi, a variety of grilled animal muscle from the robata, and the option of submitting to an omakase by chef Jose Melendez, himself transported from the west-coast mothership. It takes time to get a grip on.
The items that come off the robata are generally well executed. Small portions of minimally accented proteins glisten and sizzle in their fats, from springy chicken meatballs and clean-tasting lamb chops to charred aged rib eye and bouncy mineral-rich chicken hearts. Other proteins are only slightly more accessorized: pork belly is drenched in maple miso sauce with sweet pear kimchi on the side, cod shellacked with miso glaze in the classic style, crispy-skinned jidori chicken enlivened with a mere dab of the yuzu-chile-salt relish kosho.
Hot and cold small plates are dicey. The immaculate freshness of yellowtail sashimi somehow stands up to a treatment of minced jalapeño and hot olive oil, but pristine lobes of sea urchin suffer a briny disaster, drowned in an insipid ponzu. Tuna tartare gilded with uni, caviar, and a quail egg is a luxurious pleasure that shouldn’t share menu space with soggy-sweet tempura-battered popcorn shrimp that perform as if they’d emerged from a room-temperature take-out container.
Sushi, by chef Rob Juan, is all over the map too. It’s possible to order lovely pieces of fresh, unadorned sashimi as well as absurd crimes against fish such as the signature Katana roll, overburdened with tuna and raw jalapeño and filled with salmon mush, or the White Lotus, a messy collision of shrimp tempura, avocado, asparagus, albacore, and fried onions.
When I visit a restaurant I make it a point to order the most ridiculous-sounding thing on the menu, and dessert at Katana doesn’t disappoint. The Carnival is a chocolate brownie topped by peanut butter semifreddo adorned with meringue and candied pretzel—all served in a cotton candy balloon that’s doused with vodka and set alight at the table like the circus disaster of your nightmares. The Volcano, a chocolate lava cake called up from 1987, is served with miso-caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Behind the bar there’s a perfunctory selection of red and white wines; if you’re getting into the spirit of the place you’ll be more interested in the 16 sakes available by the glass and the 23 Japanese and Taiwanese whiskeys. But even if you don’t take any aesthetic pleasure in drinking, you should forgo your Blow Job shots and take a look at Simon’s cocktail list. He performs feats of daring like mixing blended Japanese whiskey with ten-year-old port (Ghost in the Shell) or London dry gin with violet syrup (Sex & Violets) or tequila with yuzu-salt ale (Tears of My Enemies). There’s always something you haven’t tasted before with this guy.
Chicago has historically been tough on restaurants that parachute into town, so who knows if the ostensibly austere minimalism of Japanese food combined with manufactured Tinseltown maximalism will hold the attention of the swaggering primates of River North?
But Simon isn’t the only Chicagoan brought in on Katana. IDG tapped the equally itinerant Jason Chan, a general manager with a significant variety of hometown experience (Butter, Urban Union, Juno, Naoki). It will be interesting see whether, over time, these two veterans of the Chicago hospitality industry can somehow make this place feel like it belongs here. For now, Katana is more accurately described as a brobotayaki; every intention is to make you feel like a sexy beast, in an effort that couldn’t be a more accurate expression of Hollywood facileness. v