I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Oh You Fancy, Huh? Part 4, Saw-She-Me!

Most of us feign an interest in sushi. Sure, we eat it. We even crave it occasionally and can tell a good piece of fatty tuna from a bad one. Consumption alone, however, does not a connoisseur make. Few of us, myself included, plumb the depths of this simple yet infinitely complex world of Japanese inspired seafood. What we seek, then, is that rare establishment that offers a delicious repertoire of food coupled with a spirit of education.

With this in mind I made a midweek sojourn over to the very well regarded Arami in Ukranian Village. The guys who created Small Bar  and The Exchange (Ty Fujimura and Troy Fujimura) are responsible for this understatedly stylish and well lit restaurant. They brought in Tsunami/Aria alum Byung Park to head the kitchen. The combined efforts of these esteemed men has garnished more than its fair share of critical/popular adoration and, thusly, I decided to give them the ol' up and down.

It's sometimes hard to separate good sushi from great sushi.
My rules are simple, strong and jaunty.
1. Good sushi uses fresh fish. Great sushi uses really fresh fish that is of the highest quality (less than five days out of the water, no odor other than seawater and minor floral and fruit notes). Linguistically speaking, sushi refers to rice and sashimi refers to fish but what am I? A Japanese dictionary? No.
2. Good sushi is flavorful. Great sushi accentuates natural fish flavors without overly depending on additives like mayonnaise, tempura, wasabi or soy sauce1.
3. Good sushi uses rice. Great sushi uses high quality, sticky, and minimally seasoned short grain rice and not too much of it.
4. Good sushi can be cheap. Great sushi usually costs a bit more. Consider what you're eating: raw fish2. This stuff doesn't keep well (so chefs can't order large quantities of it in advance without damaging quality) and requires passionate and well trained people to prepare it correctly (i.e., they are usually more expensive to employ).

All food and drink was ordered with expressed verbal consent of Ms. Allie Kim: former employee and good friend of Arami. Thanks, Allie.
saké mussels–
Our ordering of mussels was directly informed by the day of the week. You see, Tuesday is the best day to eat seafood. Anywhere. Fish markets on both coasts are closed on Sundays (and sometimes Mondays) so the really fresh product usually arrives first thing Tuesday morning. These saké soaked bivalves were distinctly rich, buttery and very (get used to reading this word) fresh. The saké added a ricey flavor to a broth that typically features either wine or beer. 

spicy tako springroll–
Vietnam found its way on to Arami's menu and, if the people have any say, it will stay firmly planted there. These surprisingly acidic and hot li'l packages were fresher than early Will Smith and packed some sneaky heat on the back end. The only let down was an overly sweet aioli that distracted from the other  flava-flavors.

–togarashi seared tuna–
If Arami had a signature dish it would be this. I'd usually frown upon using a Meyer-lemon crema on rare tuna but it added beautiful bright and rich nuances to this dish's flavor profile. The tuna was (Mannie) Fresh and the togarashi added a slowly unfolding spicy complexity that makes you think about each bite long after it's gone.

Ramen and Rice
–arami ramen–
If you come to Arami on a tight budget and want to leave full and satisfied then simply order this pork-belly-centered bowl of warmth and joy. The dynamic duo of sweet and salty play the lead parts in this soupy opera. They're joined by a wonderful supporting cast of smoky (pork belly) and rich (egg). Just for fun, the scene-stealer kimchi is thrown in the mix. If I gave out stars, this would have a bunch.

–braised short rib donburi–
If elegant, meaty simplicity is what you seek than look no further than the omnipresent short rib. The most complex bite has a good helping of the tender and rich short rib, a ring of the slightly spicy fresno chile, and healthy base of perfectly cooked rice underneath. There's not much more to say about it than that. 

–hirame spicy tako–
This fluke topped delight was the minimalist star of the food parade as far as I'm concerned. The delicate sea-ish flavors of the octopus were reflected in the fuji apple and vinaigrette that accompanied it. This is a testament to how good a clean and simple maki can be.

–shrimp tempura asparagus–
These torched kissed little devils were warm, spicy and very satisfying. The green stuff on top is dried nori which not only aids digestion but also improves eye sight and resting heart rate3. The surprise of this dish was the salmon that's snuck in where you least expect it. I won't ruin the surprise though.

–unagi maguro–
A flash fried freshwater eel was the star of this show. The savory scallions were a nice counterweight to the understatedly spiced and very fresh tuna tartare that sits proudly on top. This is another maki that is slightly warm in some places and cold in others, a trend that emerged repeatedly in Arami's food.

–zuke sake hotate–
An unabashed crowd pleaser, this creamy and homey salmon-wrapped dish lived a short but glamorous existence on our table. The spicy scallop sits inside waiting to unleash its mild heat explosion on your tongue. The salmon was beautifully marbled and perfectly marinated. The rock it was served on was inedible.

–chef's choice–
Pictures can't capture the show stopping nature of this piece. It belongs on a tropical island populated solely by Care Bears and spear fisherman. I was so dazzled by its presentation that all I had written in my notes about the actual food was the word "wow" followed by what I can only guess is a primitive version of sanskrit. 

–secret hamachi–
Hamachi maybe one of the most underrated fish in the sushi gamut. Truffle oil maybe one the most overrated/overused things in cooking right now. The matchup made gave me pause. Luckily, the guys on the line were reserved in their use of the highly pungent oil and the fish sang its song unencumbered. I count this as a win in the ongoing war that truffle oil is waging against my taste buds. 

–akami ankimo–
This grapefruit-looking slab of flesh is tuna. The white stuff on top is monkfish foie gras (the only edible part of monkfish are their tail muscle and their liver). The overall flavor was frosh-fresh and slightly metallic with a rich and complex overtone that I'm assuming was a direct product of the foie gras. I wasn't crazy about it but I still respect it, damnit.

–sake garlic–
The vinegar soaked salmon and delicate garlic blended as seamlessly as a seamless sock. Oh, you haven't heard of seamless socks? They are normal socks turned inside out so the seams are on the outside rather than on the inside rubbing against your feet. Didn't think you'd be getting sock advice, did you? Learn something new every day. That's my motto.

–katsuo tatake–
As you can see katsuo looks like tuna (it's sometimes called striped tuna). Its flavor is less steaky and when prepared properly it practically melts in your mouth. This version was prepared properly. The citrusy syrup coats everything but doesn't overwhelm anything and the mountain root vegetables warm as they go down your throat. Maybe that was the saké. I'd had a lot of saké at this point.

What do you call the beer list at Arami? Culturally specific? Selective? Eclectic? I'm stumped. All I know is it's good. We sampled five of their rare and unique brews (from left to right):
-Baird Red Rose Amber Ale: a lager brewed ale; say what? Biscuity. Sweet. Pine-hoppy.
-Ginga Kogen Beer: Problematic nose (smells like skunked Heineken). Bananas. Silky body.
-Hitachino Classic Pale Ale: Deceptively smooth (7% ABV). Saké-ish flavor. Not hoppy.
-Hitachino White Ale: Orangey. Elegant. Thicky thick.
-Hitachino Real Ginger Brew: Ginger doesn't hide. Big Amplitude, short frequency. A novelty.

–wakatake onikoroshi–
We started out the meal with this saké–who's name means "demon slayer"–and its bold flavors of cream, almond and pineapple smack you in the face and then ask you if you want some more. You do. The mouth feel is full bodied, oily and dry. Like most quality sakés this was served cold in small cups that could be shot but are meant to be sipped. The names "junmai daiginjo"on the label indicate that this is pure rice wine with no distilled alcohol added during the brewing process. 

Akitabare means "northern sky" in Japanese. Honestly, I don't remember at what point in the meal we drank this saké. We had a about four different kinds over the course of the meal but, according to my notes, I really liked this one. It is filtered clear and had wonderfully palate cleansing properties. It was very light and thin in terms of texture. My notes stop there (did I mention we drank a lot at this dinner?). I could say it paired well with simple seafood but that would be conjecture on my part and guessing is frowned upon here at GBGB.

To say I was impressed with Arami would be a disservice to my experience there. I was overwhelmed. We tried almost everything on the menu and barely took time to breathe. Was it the best sushi in Chicago (like so many have written and said)? I'm not sure. What I can say for sure is that it was an event and I can say three things without hesitation:
1. Everything tasted good.
2. Nothing dissapointed.
3. Go there and try it for yourself, you'll leave happy. What more can I say?

This is the golden age of American sushi. We're living in it right now. There are two reasons for this. The first is choice; there are so many sushi places in this city that seafood themed Japanese (nigiri, unami, hamachi, mono, etc.) has become our official second language. The second reason is acceptance; everyday people have never been more receptive to the idea of eating uncooked fish. All of this is good because it means restaurants have to bring out good product every night because, friends, we have been to the mountain top and we have seen the light!

1.A note about creativity: sushi was never intended to be a complicated cuisine. All this heavy dosing of miso, spicy mayo, tempura crunch and sticky-sweet syrups is a result of using poor quality fish and rice. While chefs should never be restricted in terms of what ingredients they should and should not use, when it comes to sushi less is truly more.
2. If you're a responsible person, and I like to think you are, then you probably know that fish is currently an ethically tricky thing to eat. Fisheries in the Northern Atlantic and much of the Pacific have either collapsed or are in serious jeopardy of collapsing due to overfishing and environmental destruction. So, before you eat, you should check out Seafood Watch List to find out which fish are cool and which need a breather in terms of consumption.
3. These facts were made up on the spot and do not reflect the opinion of doctors or established medical research.

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