March 24, 2011
One unexpected benefit of enhanced airport security is that airport dining options have never been better. The arrive-early dictum (to allow for screening delays) has resulted in airports full of travelers with time on their hands and the sure knowledge that the airlines have no intention of feeding them.
Slowly, airport food-service operators have responded with better choices and quality brands. At Midway, kiosks carry such recognizable names as Harry Caray, Phil Stefani and Gold Coast Dogs. At O'Hare, there are restaurants by Wolfgang Puck and Johnny Rockets, and new small-scale spots by Rick Bayless and the Alpogianis brothers' America's Dog.
Wicker Park, the curiously named sushi restaurant that opened in December in O'Hare's Terminal 2, might be the best of the bunch. It is, first and foremost, an uncommonly pretty restaurant, a long, bright-blue ribbon against a two-story bank of windows. White-leather swivel stools with decent back support line the long sushi bar; beyond that are free-standing wood-grain tables and molded-wood chairs, and a remote marble counter is equipped with electric outlets for the lunch-and-laptop types. There's even a high-backed booth that will accommodate six or more.
And the food, overseen by chef Susumu Shibata, is surprisingly good. I'm especially fond of the sashimi, which Shibata presents in thicker-than-usual slices; the added heft only enhances the buttery flavor of white escolar and the sweetness of the hamachi, and the sashimi scallops are propped upright between paper-thin lemon slices, giving the scallops just a smidge of extra acidity. And when the menu offers toro, that's what the kitchen delivers — not the common bright-red tuna, but soft-pink, gloriously fatty tuna belly. I could limit my choices exclusively to sashimi and pronounce myself happy.
There are some fun sushi rolls, including a Wicker Park roll with tempura shrimp, eel sauce and king crab — a bit pricey at $22, but it's a big seller. Ditto for the Hot Night Roll, a predictably tonsil-torching tuna and shrimp roll doused with wasabi, sriracha and spicy radish sauces.
For tamer palates, there's a beef tenderloin roll in which thin slices of good-quality beef surround asparagus, carrot and radish, with dabs of mustard-soy dressing. And Shibata puts extra effort into his Special Veggie roll, a vegetarian creation that packs Japanese cucumber, avocado, pickled burdock root, kanpyo (a Japanese squash), asparagus and seaweed within a soy-paper wrapper.
Beyond sushi and sashimi, there are a few entree-size salads, including a shrimp salad burdened with tough, overcooked shrimp and underdressed-to-a-fault greens. Starters include chilled edamame (nobody screws up edamame), raw oysters and the like. If you're having dessert, the fruit-filled mock-sushi rolls are a better bet than the tiramisu, dusted with green-tea powder and resembling some failed St. Patrick's Day experiment.
Beverage choices are impressive. There are a handful of by-the-glass wines, served in real stemware, and cocktails with names such as Skinny Buddha and Osaka Nights. There are a dozen sake choices in 300 milliliter pours (about nine ounces), and even a couple of shochu options.
Because Wicker Park sits beyond security check-in (like most O'Hare dining options), the only way to visit the restaurant is as a ticketed passenger. That restricts the client pool somewhat, but general manager Harry Lu sees the post-security location as an advantage.
"When they get here, they're already checked in, they have their boarding passes and know their gate number," he says. "They can relax."
And relax is the name of the game here; Wicker Park is not built for speed. Save for a handful of pre-made sushi packages for the on-the-run crowd, everything here is made to order. Block out at least a half-hour if you're sitting down. (I did place one carryout order, just to time them, and it took exactly 15 minutes.)
Don't look to the waiters for menu insights; servers can name the top sellers and that's about it. They are patient with sushi neophytes, however, and unfailingly pleasant, as was the case when I watched a hostess tell an unclear-on-the-concept arrival that, no, regrettably there was no chicken Caesar salad on the menu.
Wicker Park isn't going to become Chicago's next sushi destination, but it's bright and spacious and the chefs crank out quality dishes. As airport oases go, you can't ask for much more.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
Terminal 2, O'Hare airport
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Maki rolls $7-$22
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Not accepted
Other: Boarding pass required for access; wheelchair accessible
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