Most people think of sushi when they think of Japanese food, but there's plenty of grilling, and steaming going on in Japanese kitchens. While fish usually takes center stage in many dishes, there are plenty of meat items on the menu, too. Japanese restaurants in Chicago run the gamut from upscale fusion restaurants to dining while sitting on tatami mats or on low tables in the traditional Japanese style at an izakaya. Hot Asian fusion restaurants like Sunda and Takashi consistently get rave reviews from both locals and visitors for pushing the envelope with eclectic, innovative and beautifully-plated dishes while more off-the-beaten places like Sankyu and Katsu attract those who want more traditional Japanese fare.
Although not as well known, the Japanese can do small dishes (check out Itto Sushi and Wasabi for their small plates) and home-style comfort food well, too. Craving sushi rolls? Chicago has it well covered with places like Coast. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind but locals know that Mitsuwa, better known for its grocery store, is their secret go-to place for great prepared Japanese food.
Décor varies widely and many restaurants are BYOB so be sure to check the websites for up-to-date information.
Finding a great sushi place in the South Loop isn't easy but Oysy fits the bill. Oysy is an Izagaya, a bistro type restaurant serving traditional food in a relaxed atmosphere. Its contemporary atmosphere includes modern designed tables and lighting and a lot of open space so you won't feel crowded. Service can be spotty depending on your expectations but prices are about right (specialty maki rolls range from $10-15). Fan favorites include the seaweed salad, Godzilla and Chicago maki rolls and Chilean sea bass with black bean sauce. If you prefer cooked maki rolls, opt for the Firecracker which is a bit spicy and fully cooked. ((312) 922-1127)
9 Coast Sushi Bar
With three locations, Coast is known for its high quality sushi coupled with outstanding service. Weekends can get loud and very busy, especially at its city locations. The Bucktown hotspot (BYOB) features a warm and sexy interior while its South Loop locale is a bit more stark and modern in ambiance. Its Evanston spot gives North Shore diners many of its signature dishes including its popular Coast Crab maki roll which features king crab, scallion in spicy mayo with tempura crumb or the White Dragon roll with shrimp tempura, wasabi tobiko, avocado and cream cheese. For those craving more traditional fare, the menu rounds out its maki roll and sashimi options with dishes like seared tuna, filet mignon and Yakisoba stir-fried noodles with fresh vegetables. (773-235-5775)
This popular Japanese restaurant and sushi bar has been around so long (it claims to be Chicago's first sushi restaurant) that several patrons talk about coming when they were little kids -- and keep returning now as adults. An outdoor garden is a treat in Chicago and if you don't have reservations, you might be waiting for a table both indoors and out. It serves saké martinis along with a few cooked Japanese dishes. Throughout the day, sushi is a mainstay, but noodle dishes, hot entrees and a selection of elegant specials also prove satisfying. With several locations, most near downtown Chicago and one in the northern suburbs, it's relatively easy to find one near you. (312-664-3663)
Japonais is a contemporary Japanese restaurant. The ambiance exudes a laid back yet sophisticated and authentic atmosphere. Its outdoor dining with plush pillows, cabanas and floor lamps all along Chicago's Riverfront is a hot place to see and to be seen on warm days and nights. Foodwise it's most known for its "Rock" appetizer, thinly sliced marinated New York strip where diners can cook themselves on a hot rock presentation. Fans love the lobster spring rolls with a mango relish and blood orange glaze or the Hawaiian Hamachi with thinly sliced Yellowtail in a sesame soy yuzu vinaigrette as appetizers. (312-822-9600)
6 Wasabi, Chicago
A relative newcomer to the Chicago sushi scene (2010), Wasabi wasted no time becoming a darling among local and out of town visitors. One of only a handful of Japanese-owned Japanese restaurants in Chicago, it also has Executive Head Sushi Chef, Hiromich Sasaki, one of original Japanese sushi chefs in the Chicago area, at the helm. Most places know not to bother trying to appease everyone but Wasabi does and it does it right. It offers small plates (Izakaya-style), grilled skewers and an authentic Japanese ramen made from boiling pork bones for days. Seafood is flown in fresh on a daily basis from all over the world, including Tsukiji market in Tokyo. (7732278180)
5 Mitsuwa Marketplace
Just 30 minutes from Chicago is this wildly popular Japanese grocery superstore that boasts an impressive food court with a huge variety of choices of Asian delicacies. If you want authentic Japanese, you'll find udon, teriyaki, sushi and bento boxes aplenty. There are tables and chairs to dine at the food court but weekends get slammed with shoppers so you may have to stalk tables to get a seat. Bonus: while you're there, you can stock up on pretty much anything Asian (from fresh seafood, meat, pots and pans, rice cookers and even comic books) since the place is a grocery superstore. Doesn't really get more authentic than Mitsuwa for Japenese. (847-956-6699)
Acclaimed Chef Takashi Yagihashi (a James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Midwest award winner and Top Chef Masters contestant) features contemporary French-American fare with Japanese influences, combining the cuisine and service of a fine dining establishment with the warmth and accessibility of a neighborhood tavern. Takashi stands apart from other great Bucktown restaurants because of its ability to surprise its diners. Whether you're served chicken liver mousse with caramelized apple and almonds as your amuse bouche or finishing up a decadent seafood dinner with an equally decadent dessert like the Valrhona Milk Chocolate Sticky Cake, it's unlikely you'll leave without feeling you've had one of the best meals and experiences in a long time. (7737726170)
3 Itto Sushi
One of the oldest Japanese restaurants in Chicago, Itto Sushi caters to both Japanese and non-Japenese patrons (its website can be read either in Japanese or English). It's an izakaya which is a type of Japanese drinking establishment which also serves food to accompany the drinks. The menu is designed for sharing (like Spanish tapas) so be adventurous and try several of the small dishes. If you like them, order more. The atmosphere is low-key and guests are encouraged to sit back, enjoy your meal with some good drinks and friends. Its beer selection is great but leave room for sake or shochu (a low proof distilled alcohol from Japan). (773-871-1800)
2 Katsu Japanese
When diners crave real Japanese sushi and not the "westernized" maki rolls, they head to this stalwart that has been around for more than 20 years in its unassuming West Rogers Park location. Chef Katsu Imamura takes his fish seriously at his namesake restaurant, delighting guests to large and flavorful portions from tuna marinated in a citrus/sweet dressing with scallions or the chef's platter which include sashimi and white toro topped with black caviar. Nigiri, sashimi, chirashi and other more traditional Japanese food is what you'll find on the menu. Interior décor is simple and elegant allowing guests to focus on the food. Service is polite and non-intrusive. Katsu is not inexpensive but diners say it's worth every penny. (773-784-3383)
1 Sankyu Japanese Restaurant
Walk into Sankyu and you'll immediately notice its clientele speaking in Japanese. Most of the menu is written in Japenese (with English as the second language). JapanTV is on. Like most ethnic restaurants, it says something when people from your home country patronize the place enough that these details are appreciated. As in true Izakaya style, the dishes here are meant to be shared. Also described by one regular as Tokyo type street food, Sankyu delights its guests with both traditional Japanese dishes like ramen, teriyaki, yakisoba but plenty of options to satisfy those who like their maki rolls, too. Oh, did we mention it has a karaoke lounge? ((847) 228-5539)
About Megy Karydes
Megy Karydes has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and most of her life in Chicago. While she’s traveled extensively internationally, visiting each of the 50 states is on her bucket list.
An adventure seeker, she’s game for anything from mixed martial arts training to competing in obstacle course races. A self-proclaimed coffee snob and “greenie” who loves farmer-grown food and locally-grown craft beers & wine. She’s yet to find an outdoor beer garden she doesn’t like.
Mixing writing and food/drink is her specialty, especially when it involves travel.
Visit her musings on her insatiable appetite for life at www.WanderingTastes.com or www.KarydesConsulting.com.
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