[Editor’s note: Eric Aubriot moved on before long.]
I observed not long ago that Chinatown has been undergoing something of a resurgence in culinary variety and vision lately. What with MingHin Cuisine, Tony Hu’s Lao Yu Ju, and a handful of other interesting new eating and drinking developments, there’s no reason it shouldn’t enjoy more spillover traffic from the young sheiks and flappers making the scene in nearby Bridgeport and Pilsen. Lure Izakaya, yet another Japanese pub in concept only, fits in well in that constellation—and also happens to be the most enjoyable among the recently sprouting and withering crop of izakaya-ish restaurants.
There’s something about the seemingly unlikely partnership between Kee Chan and ronin chef Eric Aubriot that makes it particularly appealing, though it’s at times difficult to pinpoint either’s direct influence on the food. I wasn’t a fan of Chan’s previous project in this building—the grotesquely fusiony Mulan—but before that he was known for raising the bar for quality sushi at Heat and Mirai. And though Aubriot never remained anyplace long after his eponymous and pretty wonderful little Lincoln Park spot closed in 2003, he proved himself ever changeable and in demand, cooking in Italian, Middle Eastern, and hotel restaurants, holding down the fort briefly at Custom House, and opening the Rogers Park gourmet sundries store Taste.
The pair has joined forces in an angular, winningly garish companion to Lao You Ju, tucked away in the far eastern corner of the Chinatown Square mall. It’s loud—even when empty—and lit and laid out with all the abstract geometric animation of an early 80s arcade game. Remember Tempest? Tron? You half expect Jeff Bridges to serve your little amuse of citrus-miso-drizzled edamame with a hearty “Greetings, Programs!”
Counterintuitively, part of the mystery of the chefs’ mutual impact lies in the fact that the food they’re putting out is, for the most part, so simple: small snacks for small bucks that are generally so compelling you might find you’ve eaten and spent a lot more more than you expected.
But not much reinventing is needed when it comes to quality little bites like crunchy-thin lotus chips, deep-fried nuggets of squid head, and flavor-concentrated air-dried wood-grilled Japanese small fishes. Even better are the chunks of tender, crispy sake-marinated chicken karaage and luxuriously fat little frenched lamb chops drizzled with a yuzu-miso-mustard vinaigrette and angled atop a salad of shredded golden beets.
The chefs show balls of stone by offering their rock shrimp yamaimo, a deep rice bowl double slimed by raw egg and mucilaginous Japanese mountain yam (allegedly used as joy jelly in the Edo period). For fans of the texturally challenging, it’s a first line of defense against potential hangovers. For others, there’s an equally prophylactic bowl heaped with garlicky mascarpone-sauced spaghetti tossed with chunks of sweet lobster.
These plates arrive in rapid order, too—attesting to the minimal finishing involved—but so do the slightly more complicated ones such as the fresh, fat black mussels bathing in a terrifically full-bodied miso-butter-coconut broth that could stand on its own with a loaf of good bread or a generous, perfectly silky portion of sliced foie gras with roasted Japanese mushrooms and a sauce with white soy sauce and orange liqueur that has Aubriot written all over it. For the end: a spicy, gingery “Bananas Foster” cake hidden under sauteed bananas and coconut mousse or a creme brulee with a tart, pleasantly bitter infusion of yuzu citrus that’s just the thing an old dinosaur of a dessert needs for resurrection.
There are a few duds—a dull, overstuffed tuna and bone marrow spring roll, overwhipped deep-fried potato croquettes, and a bland mess of spinach with sake and brown butter cooked in a foil packet. But most of these little bites—for example, a couple of grilled smoked Japanese cocktail weenies to dip into a spicy togarishi mayo, or a “chef’s surprise” of two loosely formed quenelles of creamy house-made ricotta surrounded by shimmering shavings of lightly smoky bonito—really do make ideal drinking foods.
And a good place to drink is something Chinatown still lacks. There’s definitely a healthy sense of fun here, with live music and a 10 percent discount if you dress up like a vampire or a “Lolita girl” on certain nights. That’s why I’d like to see a broader range of choices behind the bar. There’s a wine list and a good 11-bottle sake list, but only a few treacly cocktails and three beers. Add some shochu and whiskeys from the nearby Chinatown Place Liquor City and it’s a party.