The first sushi chef to incorporate cream cheese in makimono surely must have been stoned, but just as easily could have been saying to himself, “Oh shit—the fish is bad. Now what do I do?” He’s probably suffering in the underworld right now, but his legacy has devolved to the point where no one blinks when restaurants shamelessly camouflage sea creatures with all sorts of indignities, from chile sauce to coconut flakes to pork belly and collards. That’s the MO at two new, similarly themed but quite different vaguely Japanese fish-and-stick-meat joints. They’re part of a so-far unimpressive offshoot of the izakaya trend that began with the mega yakiniku chain Gyu-Kaku.
Union Sushi & Barbeque Bar—from ex-Sushi Wabi chef Worachai Thapthimkuna and partner Mike Schatzman—was preceded by a prolonged social media and travel-blogging campaign establishing the pair’s enthusiasm for global street food. The result of their research is a David Chang-style confluence of carnicentric excess and pan-Asiatica that I can see making the most sense during animalistic bouts of marijuana-driven bingeing.
Here chain-mail tapestries and bright graffiti art surround the centerpiece glass-encased robata grill, which periodically bursts into cinematically hellish flames to envelop the $2 to $5 skewered bites. The alligator pop is a particularly good one: the reptile is a notoriously tough, tasteless novelty flesh, but somehow this effort is tender and juicy. Same goes for the soft cubes of beef tongue blanketed in thick Japanese curry and sprinkled with rice crisps, and the fat, jellylike prosciutto-wrapped scallop topped with creamy wasabi-avocado puree and wisps of fried ginger.
I’d have been happy ordering two of the latter and calling it a night, but duty required me to order the processed fish-cake tube chikuwa, stuffed with pepper Jack. It’s one of the odder offerings, and it foreshadows some terrifically ill-conceived starters and large plates such as the uni alfredo soba, a bowl of green tea noodles and orange-colored cream sauce that obliterates any ocean freshness from the urchin gonads but certainly brings to mind their milty reproductive function.
More-promising-sounding dishes can be subject to disastrous execution; see the oversalted bowl of lamb ramen filled with tempuraed Scotch quail eggs, unidentifiable cuts of stringy meat, and flat noodles that give it more commonality with western Asian noodle soups than its namesake.
In the “real meat” category (is the rest faux?): a saladlike arrangement of tough, barely braised kale and sweet potato stems goes down fighting amid bits of mushy pork belly and deep-fried sweet potato nubbins—I wince at calling them gnocchi in spite of what the menu says.
There are a few flashes of brilliance. The agedashi sweet-potato tater tots, soft tuberous dumplings bathing in a light dashi, are a smart homage to the traditional tofu dish. The cone of oxtail rice, cooked with bovine blood, is a clever nod to ichorous sausages everywhere. The luxuriously rare and rich venison patty topped with egg yolk recalls a loaded teriyaki burger. And the composition of the “underground salad” of pickled radishes, mushrooms, and surprisingly crisp, nonmucilaginous mountain yam is as florid as the dish is delicious.
Yet Union is fundamentally a sushi restaurant, and the specialty house makimono and “classics” feature the surfeit of ingredients, incomprehensibly clashing textures, and muddled flavors that represent the worst excesses of the nonpurist school of fish. An unagi, red onion, burdock, and pickled chile “River North” is wrapped in wet, vegetal collard greens instead of rice. The Belly Roll, an overstuffed sleeve of tempura-crumb-sprinkled rice, doesn’t do any favors for its hamachi, fried pig strips, or its half-dozen other components. And even the simplest spicy tuna can’t leave the bar without a sprinkling of crunchy tempura flakes. Oddly, most of these rolls feature cooked fish, rather than raw. But that’s probably comforting for the sort of mobs that pack similarly circuslike River North spots such as Sunda and Paris Club.
Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is of its neighborhood as well. Almost hidden on a weathered block of Chicago Avenue in East Village, it’s a small, humble spot with a far less ambitious menu that unfortunately doesn’t treat fish any more seriously. A full half dozen of its specialty makimono are rolled with the dreaded cream cheese, and as a rule they’re assembled with even less dexterity than at Union. Spurted with gouts of spicy mayos, sweet soy, or peppered vinegar and loaded with tempura’s textural crutch, these maki are packed with several species at a time and harmonize about as well as a chorus of sharks and porpoises. Echoing Union, there’s even a riceless roll, this one wrapped in shaved cucumber and dusted with roasted coconut flakes like a crab-flavored Zagnut bar. Please, chefs everywhere, stop with the carb-free maki. Or at least stop calling them sushi.
The skewers—among them, kalbi-style beef short rib, chicken wings smothered in curry, soy butter-brushed asparagus, and fish tofu hot dogs—are mostly fine, if as workmanlike as appetizers like deep-fried planks of tempura sweet potato, samosa-like chicken curry puffs, and a small but handsome deep-fried soft-shell crab.
With the addition of a few Thai-style noodle bowls and grilled teriyaki plates, Yuzu—simple and flawed as it is—has a few more things going for it than the far more audacious Union. It’s significantly less expensive, for one thing. It’s BYO, so there’s little risk of sipping the sort of treacly cocktails served at the latter. And the gloomy, gray space is brightened by the young, hyperkinetic, and likable staff, which will surely make enough friends of the neighbors to keep them returning for quick, cheap meat-stick fixes.
For the rest of us, don’t expect a timely end to the sushi-kushiyaki wave that’s sweeping the city. The international chain Roka Akor is landing soon in—surprise—River North. One can hold out hope for it, but in its current state this a trend I wish would be nipped in the bud until someone can do it right.
E-mail Mike Sula at email@example.com.