A young woman arrived late to join two friends at Radio Anago, a new Japanese restaurant in River North. Hugs and kisses were exchanged, then the newcomer delicately bent her knees, and then her waist—and then indelicately planted her butt on the floor.
And yet she seemed the picture of sobriety. Turned out she’d missed her mark on the banquette hidden in the gloom that lurks below table level in this 16th concept from Brendan Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality.
She recovered herself, but still, not a great start to an evening at this sushi—uhhhhh, sea cave? There’s no sushi bar to speak of at Radio Anago. Or rather, there’s no bar where you can sit and meditate on the chef’s deft knifework on the fruits of the sea. There is a sort of kitchen stage at the rear of the space that’s the only thoroughly lit pocket of this snug 40-seat dining room tucked behind Sawada Matcha, Hogsalt’s second Japanese cafe.
Just past its espresso machines, you enter Anago through dusty-rose velvet curtains that open upon a twilit gloom thumping with propulsive EDM, the soundtrack for the secret government breeding experiment that is River North nightlife. This actually comes as a shock if you just finished a drink next door at Hogsalt’s Gilt Bar with Nick Cave snarling about death and redemption.
Under the glow from squat $300 brass table lamps, nigiri shine from the spare brushing they’ve been given of nikiri, a cocktail of dashi, sake, mirin, and usually soy that sushi chefs use when they trust you’re not going to dunk their lovely fish and perfectly steamed rice into a puddle of soy sauce muddied by green-tinted horseradish paste. You can do that here—tables are armed with cut-glass soy sauce dispensers, paste is provided—but try not to.
The rice and fish at Radio Anago are prepared by Hari Chan, a surname that will be familiar to fans of brothers Kaze and Macku Chan, whose exploits in the sushi business (Momotaro, Macku Sushi, Mirai, Heat, and on and on) are well documented.
But don’t go looking for Laughing Cow cheese, tomato-mushroom puree, or foie gras with your fish here. Hari Chan, the brothers’ cousin, pursues purity even if the restaurant’s concept isn’t that of your conventional sushi bar. The menu is simple. There are ten “bites” of nigiri, or sashimi if you prefer. There are five “rolls,” aka makimono. And then there are nine appetizers, which range from the familiar trifecta of edamame, seaweed salad, and miso soup to pork belly buns, uni shooters, and Wagyu tartare.
The latter is a bloody red howl beckoning your ancestral primal beast to attack. You can feel your fangs sharpening just looking at it. But along the lines of yukhoe, the Korean version of the dish, it’s sweetened by Asian pear, which dulls the carnal signal being sent. Scooped into your gob via taro chips, it’s the literal definition of sweetmeat. The same could be said of the pork bun enveloping two thick slabs of hoisin-glazed belly and crunchy scallions.
These dishes and all the others are hand illustrated in full color on the menu—amusing enough to frame but too big to slip under your coat. As depicted, the yellowtail sashimi glows a rosy pink thanks to a delicate film of ponzu. The tuna poke glimmers with ruby-red salmon and chunks of green avocado, smothering the already fatty fish. Miso soup, diaphanous tissues of seaweed fluttering in its depths, is straightforward, a warming umami generator, its oceanic dashi base priming the palate for sea meat. Similarly, the prototypical green salad with ginger-carrot-apple dressing is here, sculpted with wide white strips of daikon rolled around the foliage, the absence of fish inciting the impulsive desire to just get on with the sushi.
With the maki you begin to see the level of restraint Chan is exercising, minimizing the stupid crimes against fish that are committed all over the globe in the name of novelty. If anything there’s a slightly lopsided fish-to-rice ratio, but the California Tamaki Gold grains are excellent. That said, these are American-style rolls: spicy tuna enveloped in firm rice and snappy nori; scallop with warm liquid applications of miso and spicy mayo; sweet king crab with avocado rolled in tobiko, the Pop Rocks of the fish-egg universe.
When it comes to nigiri, Chan brushes the fish Jiro style with the nikiri, which subs tamari for the traditional soy to appease the gluten averse. You can’t see it, but you barely need even the slightest touch of the soy sauce in front of you. Please go easy on the horseradish.
Sodikoff tells me there’s a dab of true wasabi under some of these nigiri, but it passed beneath my radar. What you get are nearly uniform slabs of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail with consistently contoured corners. There’s a gently charred spot prawn, sweet as can be, giving just a bit of dental resistance before yielding a cool, creamy interior. Tuna is opaque, with faint filigrees of ivory fat; unagi is lush and lacquered sweetly, while octopus has a sausagelike snap.
One great barometer of a sushi-ya’s worth is its treatment of sea urchin. I’m afraid I can’t rate Radio Anago in this category because every time I tried to order it they were all out. That was due to some interruptions in the supply chain sourcing it from waters outside Santa Barbara. I suppose that’s a good sign—if you can’t get Santa Barbara uni, maybe you shouldn’t get any at all. On the other hand, the uni shooter (a gonad bathed in yuzu), sourced from other waters, was fine though not particularly memorable.
Restraint is Radio Anago’s winningest feature. The fish is fresh, and it’s treated with respect. Given that level of humility, you might be surprised to learn there’s a plate of fried chicken on the menu that’s served sprinkled with gold leaf. That’s right—chicken for the Trump era.
It’s a dark bird: boneless butterflied chicken thighs, buttermilk brined and coated with a batter that incorporates houji, a ground roasted tea that turns the crust a deep brown, almost black. Sodikoff says he wasn’t trying to revive or even pay homage to one of the hoariest and most vulgar culinary cliches of the 80s, but simply felt this blackest of chickens in this darkest of dining rooms needed something to brighten it up.
Or maybe folks just need some cheering up. It is fun to squirt the crunchy bird with togarashi-dusted lemon wedges and cut it into chunks with the provided gilded poultry shears, pretending you’re Patrick Bateman. Yet the tea contributes an unfortunate greasy grittiness to the essential hot, crunchy, juicy mouthful that drives humanity toward fried chicken in the first place.
This bird’s spiritual adversary can be found on the dessert menu. It’s a fat wedge of snowy white coconut cake garnished with white chocolate curls (hello again, 1984), its sponge practically oozing sweetened condensed milk, and yet it seems to float above the plate like an angel, just the confection to go with the famous Military Latte served in the front cafe. There’s also soft serve and a bunch of macarons along with some ridiculous specialty shots like the Birthday Cake, vanilla vodka and creme de cacao, and the Woo Woo, peach vodka and cranberry juice, because you never know when a bachelorette party might erupt.
These beverages emerge from the coffee bar, and you can in fact order Sawada’s signature “boozy steamers,” like a matcha latte with gin and mint, or any of its other options.
It’s there too that a number of intriguing cocktails are constructed, with a focus on highballs and strong brown liquors, plus a selection of “light” tipples that, incredibly, features a mai tai, one of the strongest drinks known to man, here reduced to a Skinny Girl parody of the real thing. Other selections in the category are delightful, though, including a tequila-yuzu sour held down with Aperol. The Negroni, manhattan, bijou, and Sazerac are all well-built painkillers, but the real star of the show is the Osaka old-fashioned, poured in a tall highball glass and sweetened like a silk fist with the deep, dark Okinawan brown sugar kokuto all the cool kids are snorting these days.
Sodikoff says he wants the music and lighting at Radio Anago to contribute to the sense that guests are dining underwater. I don’t think the aggressive score quite jibes with the ascetic pleasures of the sea creatures served here—though the Pump It Up dance machine outside the restrooms is an irresistible touch. Still, the pure, no-bullshit approach to the fish makes a trip to this inky sea bottom of a dining room worth the plunge. v