Welcome to the BYOB Files, a new monthly column spotlighting the city’s bring-your-own-bottle restaurants. To me, the preponderance of BYOB spots in Chicago feels like booze karma, a perk that sort-of compensates for our pesky anti-happy hour law that restricts our natural right to half-price cocktails after work. But BYOB restaurants are not without their own regulations. Before we explore the first restaurant in the BYOB Files, West Town’s Tsu Kiji Fish Market, let’s get a few of the rules straight: Restaurants that have cafe-style seating on public sidewalks are not permitted to offer BYOB at those tables (a back or side patio on private property may offer BYOB). Most restaurants without liquor licenses do not charge a corkage fee to BYOB, though legally, they could. And as a former server at a BYOB restaurant, I have a note on tipping: If a restaurant gives you the full BYOB treatment—nice glasses, an ice bucket, opening and pouring your wine or beer—please consider tipping extra. After all, you’re not tipping on any alcohol cost, and that server still helped you out with your bottles. Got that down? Then you’re ready to dive into the BYOB Files, which will categorize each restaurant as “New,” “Tried and true” or “Go now” (a restaurant that is temporarily BYOB while it awaits a liquor license). First up: a new sushi and Japanese spot in West Town.
New: Tsu Kiji Fish Market
1156 W. Grand Ave. 312-243-1112
The backstory: Co-owner Chantima “Apple” Thunporn opened Bucktown Thai restaurant Silom 12 in 2011, but had a dream of owning a Japanese restaurant inspired by the historic Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo. Thai food came naturally to Thunporn, who is Thai herself, but Japanese cuisine would take more research. Thunporn traveled to Japan, where she visited the famed fish market, sampled fresh seafood and ate her way through countless bowls of salty ramen in Sapporo. When she returned to Chicago, she found the ramen trend taking hold here in the form of High Five Ramen, Ramen-San, Strings and other newcomers. She saw an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum, and to introduce diners to some less familiar traditional Japanese fare in the process. “I try to let the customer have knowledge about the food,” Thunporn said. “I tell them, ‘This dish is supposed to be this way.’ We still have sushi and sashimi as options because I feel like people only know how to eat the rolls; not many know about teppanyaki [dishes prepared on a Japanese griddle] or sukiyaki [hot pot]. We put those on the menu to be different from other Japanese restaurants.”
The highlights: On my visit, my server was happy to suggest stand-outs from a menu that Thunporn matter-of-factly describes as “quite huge.” My group was pleased with his suggestion of the hamaguri sakamushi (steamed clams in broth; $8.50), which arrived on a hot pot over a small burner. If you’re a fan of Belgian-style mussels, definitely give these a shot—I spooned up every drop of the broth. When I mentioned that I was looking for sushi beyond the standard rolls, our server tipped me off to the ota ($12), a bamboo leaf-wrapped roll made with flounder, spicy tuna and oba, a Japanese herb, which is the antithesis of cream cheese-stuffed, mayo-drenched Americanized grocery store rolls. Aside from seafood, the spicy kara miso ramen ($14) was one of my favorites, though my friend said it verged on too spicy for her tastes. The dish begins with a traditional tonkatsu ramen broth, to which chefs add garlic and spicy chili oil along with chasu pork, which is marinated and braised pork belly. Once temperatures dip to fall and winter levels, I’ll be back for gallons of this.
BYOB lowdown: Tsu Kiji Fish Market has a laid-back but not bare-bones atmosphere with attentive BYOB service. Our server immediately brought over a free-standing ice bucket to chill our wines, and returned to our table periodically to refill our glasses. The warm towels to wipe our hands when we first arrived also were a nice touch. If you need to pick up a bottle pre-dinner, Green Grocer (1402 W. Grand Ave.) offers a well-selected lineup of wine, local craft beer and spirits just 0.4 miles west. Less than a mile away, The Noble Grape (802 N. Bishop St.) and Lush Wine & Spirits (1412 W. Chicago Ave.) offer even larger selections. The dry riesling that I brought was versatile and appropriate with both seafood and some of the lighter appetizers, while a Japanese beer or bottle of still rosé wine could work with ramen and noodle dishes.
Try it for: A group dinner, casual date or more lively experience at the bar seats facing the open kitchen
Coming attractions: Owners say they plan to add a sake bar sometime in the future, but that Tsu Kiji will always welcome people to BYOB, even when the restaurant obtains a liquor license.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. Have a suggestion for a BYOB spot you’d love to see featured here? Send an email to email@example.com or tweet @redeyeeatdrink.
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