By Lisa Arnett, RedEye
May 2, 2013
Review: Kabocha Japanese Brasserie
952 W. Lake St. 312-666-6214
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of four) Heating up
Chef Shin Thompson's former restaurant, Bonsoiree in Logan Square, was a darling of the foodie crowd. It also demanded a commitment, both in time and price, to sit down for a multi-course, multi-hour meal. When he teamed up with Ryan O'Donnell (Gemini Bistro, Rustic House) to open Kabocha in the West Loop, they decided to loosen up a bit.
"I wanted to make it more fun for people," Thompson said. "It's designed to be very flexible in how you choose to eat your meal." That means you can just as easily snack on duck potstickers with a beer at the bar as share a mess of plates with friends, or even opt for a full three-course meal.
As a nod to Thompson's Japanese roots and classic French training at Kendall College (where he and O'Donnell were classmates), they're calling Kabocha a "Japanese brasserie." Though "brasserie" usually is used to describe a laid-back, lively French restaurant, it evoked the kind of vibe they were going for. Now that Kabocha is open after more than a year of prep, let's talk about why you might want to go.
You heard Joakim Noah parties there
There's a hilarious photo of Bulls center Joakim Noah towering over Shin Thompson that Kabocha asked its followers to caption on Twitter. It was taken at a private charity event the restaurant hosted for his foundation, Noah's Arc, which dusted up plenty of pre-opening buzz. (The winning caption was "My shin is almost as tall as your Shin.") Though there's a long underlit bar for cocktailing, the dining room set off by shoji screen-inspired dividers is clearly the focus.
You really like that hippie tea stuff
I'm sure I'm not the only one who keeps accidentally calling the restaurant Kombucha—you know, that fermented tea that health nuts swear by—instead of Kabocha, which is actualy a variety of Japanese squash with some personal significance to Thompson (see sidebar). Though I didn't see kombucha anywhere on the menu, there are plenty of cocktails using Asian flavors to stoke your appetite for what's to come, whether it's the summery Cucumber Rice Cooler ($13) made with shochu, gin, cuke juice and lemongrass-wild rose tea syrup or the Sour Plum ($12), a shochu-yuzu-plum wine concoction garnished with umeboshi, a pickled plum with a salty-sour punch. There are also a handful of sakes by the glass and bottle, Japanese whiskey and some unique beers such as Kurofune porter ($9) from Japan's Baird Brewing Company on draft.
You've already done all the sushi bars
The first thing you'll see walking in is the sushi bar. Though Kabocha definitely is not a straight-up sushi spot, there is plenty to love for raw fish fans who have tired of other sceney sushi spots. The "raw" section of the menu features the most sushi-like dishes, such as the tuna and hamachi mosaic ($13). It's made from diced fish that, thanks to some Cryovac wizardry, Thompson transforms into a thin-as-carpaccio sheet, with the translucent hues resembling a glass mosaic. Bits of smoky bacon and briney pickled shallot add richness and tang to the clean flavors of the fish. The sushi moriawase is Thompson's blank canvas to showcase the day's freshest fish with fun accompaniments; think kampachi sprinkled with strawberry-wasabi powder or sea bass with chili paste-spiced Asian pear sauce. Don't let the fact that it's market price scare you; the average opening week price has been $36 and there's enough to share with friends. I do wish I'd dined with a bigger crew to have the excuse to order the shellfish aquarium—a picturesque take on a traditional seafood tower that you've seen all over the internet by now—which was just too much food (and at $85, too much cash) for a table of two.
You used to love Bonsoiree
Thompson and O'Donnell know a fan favorite when they see one, and for Bonsoiree, it was Thompson's scallop and crab motoyaki, a duo of sashimi-grade scallop and king crab coated with ponzu aioli served in a begging-to-be-Instagrammed scallop shell. It's back on the menu here, tempting with a salty, sweet richness that will make you want to devour a dozen more. (The only thing stopping you from actually doing that might be the $10 price for just a few bites.) Those looking for more of a blowout experience, the restaurant is now accepting reservations for Thompson's tasting menu ($110), served at a special kitchen-adjacent table for two starting. (Call 312-666-6214 or email Malory Scordato at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
You're intrigued by the sound of the death mustard
Kabocha's cross-cultural flavors shine brightest in dishes such as the Japanese barbecue steak ($28), a spin on the traditional French steak frites. A teres major steak—a rare cut that's also called a beef shoulder petite tender—arrives with ribbon-like fries come sprinkled with nori flakes and what Thompson calls death mustard (a vinaigrette-type mix spiced with Japanese mustard powder) to add a horseradish-like punch. "It won't kill you," he promises. Thompson also remixes steak tartare ($15) by combining boneless wagyu short rib meat with umami paste, his 20-plus-ingredient concoction that includes porcini powder and umeboshi liquid. (Vocab lesson: Umami means "yummy" in Japanese, but is used to describe a fifth flavor beyond sour, sweet, salty and bitter.) I didn't love the texture of the sesame-chili wonton chips it came with, but that didn't keep me from shoveling the stuff in.
Bottom line: I see what you're saying, Shin: Commitment can be overrated. I'm loving the chance to try Thompson's tastebud-tickling flavors without handing over a couple hundred dollars and three hours of my night. Not to mention an advanced reservation—that is, until the news gets out about Kabocha and a reservation becomes harder to snag.
Crazy about: The rabbit dumplings ($14) glazed in buttery scallion sauce and sesame-vanilla ice cream with hazelnut brittle and stone fruit jam ($8)
Not so crazy about: The shabu shabu ($24), a hot pot of broth with raw sliced ribeye and veggies for dipping. It's a cool concept to get a taste of shabu without committing to a whole dinner in Chinatown, but the sliced snow peas and sprout-like enokitake mushrooms were just too wispy to be satisfying.
I'll be back to try: The whole fried fish, coated in a tempura-style beer batter made with red rice ale
Shin Thompson and Ryan O'Donnell arrived at the name for Kabocha accidentally, but there's still a sweet story behind it. While designing the interior for the yet-to-be-named restaurant, they found lamps similar in shape to kabocha, a Japanese squash. They reminded Thompson of a story that his mother told him about his fruit- and veggie-aversion as a kid. "My mom had to kind of fool me into eating fruits and vegetables by telling me it was something else," he said. "So one time. one of her tricks was she served some kabocha squash and she told me it was chicken … it was the first fruit or vegetable that I remember liking, and even after she told me the truth of what it really was … I started to eat more fruits and vegetables. And now I eat everything."
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