By Lisa Arnett, @redeyeeatdrink
6:28 PM CST, January 25, 2013
Review: Sumi Robata Bar
702 N. Wells St. 312-988-7864
Rating: 3 (out of 4) Off to a good start
Ten years ago, all eyes were on chef Gene Kato when he and his business partners opened a massive, opulent riverfront restaurant on the edge of River North. You might have heard of it: It's called Japonais.
Kato remembers serving 700 to 900 people on weekend nights. “To do that kind of volume is unreal,” he said. While the restaurant became known for celeb-spotting, Kato was praised for his prowess preparing both impeccable sushi and contemporary cooked dishes.
Japonais added locations in New York and Las Vegas, the latter of which needed a touch more drama. “There needs to be a show for everything [in Vegas],” Kato said. The solution was a robata grill, a Japanese-style barbecue that uses smoke from fragrant white oak charcoal to flavor meat, seafood and veggies. It was then that he first thought of opening his own restaurant focused on robata.
This winter, Kato did just that with the debut of Sumi Robata Bar. With just 35 seats and a minimalist look, Sumi (“charcoal” in Japanese) couldn't be more different than the flashy spectacle that is Japonais. Wondering how Kato would fare in such a different setting, I stopped in to warm myself near the grill on an especially icy night.
Prepare to order a lot
For two people, my server recommended two to three appetizers to share plus five robata items each.
Because it was too tough to choose from the lineup of more than 20 hot and cold apps, we opted for more apps and less robata. Kato said he avoided rich ramen, tempura and rice-heavy dishes so that diners could have room to try a lot of different dishes; his only noodle dish, for example, is a restrained portion of chilled udon with soy dashi and ginger salad ($10). The upside is that all the flavors are light and clean—even the fried chicken ($8), is airy as a feather, brightened with a squeeze of lemon—which plays well with the robata-grilled meats and seafood. The downside is that without a lot of carbs to fill you up, is it will take more dishes (and more cash) to satisfy big eaters.
Expect a little dinner deja vu
If you think the slices of New York strip steak sizzling atop a hot stone at the next table look familiar, you're right. That's the ishi yaki ($12) a signature dish that Kato served at Japonais, and before that at Ohba, a restaurant and sake lounge in Wicker Park. Back then, Kato said he remembers being criticized for making customers cook for themselves. We didn't see anyone complaining; however, the dining room does get smoky when more than one table orders it at the same time.
But this isn't a mini-Japonais
Though Kato brought one signature dish with him, there's plenty of originality here. Maguro ($12) takes the pleasing combo of raw tuna and avocado that's so often found at sushi bars in maki and tartare and turns up the volume by adding yuzu juice, white soy and crunchy fried shallots. From the robata grill, smokily delicious head-on shrimp ($5) impressed more than textbook teriyaki salmon ($7). To preserve its juiciness, Kato grills wagyu ribeye in one big chunk instead of slicing and skewering it. At $12, it's two to three times more than some of the other robata items, but it was one of my favorite bites of the night. For dessert, “no-crust apple pie” ($6) sounded fun. As it turns out, fishing slippery caramel-coated apples out of a cellophane pouch with a tiny wooden spoon was not so fun after all.
The slider lives on, even here
“Everyone who orders one usually orders two,” my server said of the beef tsukune slider, a miso mustard-dressed link of ground beef in a bao-like bun that looks like a miniature hot dog. At $4 a pop, it's a more filling option to counter pricier picks such as king crab ($16) and that amazing ribeye.
Consider the sake
At other Japanese restaurants, the sake selection is so vast (I'm talking to you, Roka Akor, and your book-sized menu) that I don't even bother. Sumi makes ordering sake approachable with only a dozen or so bottles split into categories such as “bold and rich” and “aromatic.” If cocktails are your thing, consider bottled drinks ($12) such as The Sad Flute, a mix of bourbon, ginger, grapefruit and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. The idea to bottle cocktails arose out of necessity—there's no room for a service bar upstairs, Kato said, so these drinks are made in advance and stored—but the advantage is that they arrive at your table lighting-fast.
Anyone for an underground nightcap?
If you're not ready for your night to end when the check comes, ask your server if any of the 11 first-come, first-served seats at Charcoal Bar are free. While Sumi's dining room is bright and blanketed in blond wood, it's a different world downstairs. Cloaked in black and dark grays, Charcoal Bar is the yin to Sumi's yang. Behind the bar is the familiar face of Matthew “Choo” Lipsky, whom you might remember for his killer cocktails at Morso, a fantastic but short-lived Lincoln Park restaurant. After a stint designing the cocktails and managing the bar (or rather, four bars) at labyrinthine lounge Untitled, he's chucked the Vegas-style earpiece and looks more at home at this tiny lair, where he'll dutifully craft you a drink based on your favorite spirit or flavors. My date dug the mezcal creation Lipsky mixed up for him so much that he ordered another. I zeroed in on the menu of winter cocktails ($13-$18), which felt like a breath of fresh spring air with its flowery names. I tried the Rhododendron, a pear-honey-herb concoction with barrel-aged gin, as well as the citrusy Hydrangea with pisco and jasmine. Both were both balanced and delicate. P.S. If you're a “Downton Abbey” obsessive (or you just love a good story), ask Lipsky about his butler gig in England.
Kato said his guiding force for Sumi and Charcoal is takumi, the Japanese word for an artisan or craftsman who “focuses on one thing solely his whole life.” With him grilling away upstairs and Lipsky hand-chipping blocks of ice downstairs six days a week, it's clear they both are dedicated to their craft. And unlike Japonais, which served well for a flashy special-occasion dinner or a girls night out, Sumi and Charcoal have the potential to be the kind of place you'd come back to again and again.
FAST FACTS ON SUMI
Reservations: Accepted for dinner from 5-11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday through Saturday. Charcoal Bar is first come, first served and stays open later if busy.
Sit: At the robata bar for a front-row seat to the grilling action. To lean back and relax, request a table. Downstairs, the two dramatic high-backed chairs would be great for a date.
Expect to spend: $75 per person. Both appetizers and robata items are small and light, so you'll want to order quite a few.
Loved it: Free coat check, so your puffy jacket doesn't hang off the back of your barstool.
Hated it: “I'm surprised they don't have nicer chopsticks,” my date said as he pulled apart the throwaway wood ones waiting on the plate. True, an upgrade would be more in line with the price point.
I'll be back for: The 6-hour cold-brewed Sencha Fukamushi tea ($7), which I couldn't handle ordering on a 10-degree night. In the summer when Sumi adds tables outside, sign me up.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org. | @redeyeeatdrink
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC