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3-STAR DINING REVIEW

Celebrating the tastes of Japanese street food

Ex-Trotter chef creates masterstroke with Yusho

Phil Vettel

March 1, 2012

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Matthias Merges worked at Charlie Trotter's for 14-odd years, and he was the man for most of them, serving as chef de cuisine, corporate chef and finally director of operations. "He was the glue to that place," one restaurateur says, admiringly.

That glue is now happily stuck on a quiet stretch of Kedzie Avenue — in Avondale, Merges says, though most maps put him in Logan Square — running Yusho, a Japanese street-food restaurant.

The name, in Japanese, is an exhortation to celebrate, and that's what I recommend you do here.

If one thinks of Japanese foods as exercises in subtlety, Yusho will be a rude — make that exhilarating — awakening. Merges' dishes have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. These are big, powerful, in-your-face flavors, and your culinary journey, from the complimentary "pork candy" (fried pig skin dusted with dehydrated nori and spices) to the arrival of the check (presented in a Japanese sardine tin) is apt to be a wild ride indeed.

There are more than two dozen savory dishes on the menu, most of them less than $10, and the twin questions are where to start and when to stop. For the former, the chicken skin, fried so brittle you can break off pieces with your fingers, is covered in sharp flavors — Japanese mustard, garlic, togarashi spices and lime — and absolutely addictive. "Like Thanksgiving all over again," Merges says.

As to the latter, I can only advise that you stop two or three dishes before I do. When food is this tempting, prices this reasonable and payoffs so consistently rewarding, over-ordering is easy to do.

But I would find a way to try the takoyaki, soft batter buns filled with a treasure trove of salmon roe, and, when available, the massively large Hama Hama oysters, cooked in the shell, shucked and topped with cubes of house-cured lardo, crispy shallots and grated ginger.

Must-try dishes include piping-hot and meaty pieces of tempura-fried cod, suspended over a savory chawan mushi (a Japanese custard, often sweet) with shiitake mushrooms and toasted ginkgo nuts. Maitake mushrooms arrive alongside a soft-cooked egg, cubes of jellied dashi and frisee; the dish is warm enough that the cubes gradually melt into a savory, salty sauce; a splash of vinaigrette turns the savory experience into something akin to a salade Lyonnaise.

Fatty eel draped over crispy balls of brandade — yes. Quail eggs speared over a bowl of broccoli rabe and charred kombu (kale seaweed) — yes. Chicken thigh meat with Anaheim peppers — yes. Foie gras layered with sweet slices of kabocha squash and drizzles of honey — pricey, but yes. Barbecue sauce-lacquered sweetbreads — yes.

And the "Logan poser" ramen — the name refers to NYC chef David Chang, who once opined that anyone making ramen noodles outside of Japan was just posing — is, with apologies to Chang, terrific, served with crispy pig tail suspended over the bowl. Some people dunk the pig tail in the broth; I prefer eating the pork separately, enhancing the contrast with the soft noodles, but you're likely to enjoy it either way.

I rarely order dessert in Japanese restaurants, but I happily made an exception here for the kalamansi (a bitingly acidic Asian citrus, rendered here as a custard) with peanut cake and peanut brittle (two very distinct sensations, by the way); and the soft-serve, a bowl of Sichuan-pepper frozen custard alongside pieces of chocolate rice cone, cocoa nibs and kumquat.

There's a nice wine list with some attractive prices (including a $30 dolcetto d'alba that I liked a lot), but I kept returning to the cocktail list, which has such imaginatively titled libations as Hemingway in Hokkaido (think "Japanese daiquiri" and you're almost there), the bitter and clove-y Baconian Cipher (a nod to Logan Square; ask the waiter to explain) and, my favorite so far, Soul of the Sensei, a gin, rum and tangerine concoction.

The decor, by architect Rachel Crowl (not coincidentally, Merges' wife), is as eclectic as the menu. Mismatched hanging bulbs — inspired, Merges says, by Tokyo fish markets — are used throughout the dining room; over the bar, Edison-style filament bulbs hang from loosely knotted ropes thick enough to moor a yacht. Bare brick walls run the length of the restaurant; smallish booths upholstered in nubby fabric line the south wall, while much of the north wall is taken up by the long bar, which gives way to an open galley kitchen. Toward the back, a hanging projector flashes Japanese anime and monster movies; the background music, playing at modest volume, offers tunes from bands such as Shonen Knife, an all-female Japanese punk band playing, among other things, Ramones covers. Of course.

Having reviewed Next last week, I'm reminded that Grant Achatz and company plan a Kyoto-inspired menu in September. Before packing their bags, they ought to check out this place.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

Yusho

2853 N. Kedzie Ave.; yusho-chicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $3-$18
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Noise: Conversation-challenged
Other: Wheelchair accessible; street parking

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel