The Other Critics

Vettel Bows to Four Star Next Kyoto; Pang Finds Classic Katsu, Sula Hails Up and Comer Masaki

Photo: courtesy Next

Reviewing Next for the sixth time in 18 months, Phil Vettel calls the Kyoto menu “Next’s best menu since Paris,” not that this exactly tells you much about a menu so different from L’Escoffier’s French cuisine. A more revealing point has to do with the first course, a tea: “It is a Japanese-style tea, but made from charred corn husks, which convey the sweetness of corn with a burning-leaf smokiness. ‘Autumn is the time of the rice harvest in Japan, so it’s common to find toasted-rice tea,’ [chef Dave] Beran explains, ‘but that would seem artificial, because we don’t grow rice here. So we created something to relate to our harvest, and this felt and tasted like fall right off the bat.’” It sounds as if the most interesting part of the meal is less faithful replication than translation, as when a dashi broth meets midwestern maple: “I’m still impressed by how the maple got in the broth in the first place, via a stock created from maple branches, infused with bonito (fish) and kombu (seaweed) to be a true dashi. And the dish uses anago eel rather than, say, unagi or hamo, because, Beran says, ‘this was the one we liked most in our eel tasting.’” [Tribune]

Continuing the Japanese theme, Kevin Pang pays a visit to a place that has long ranked as the best and most personal sushi restaurant in the city: Katsu on Peterson. It’s owned by husband and wife team Katsu and Haruko Imamura: “Their devotion has kept many more customers — who become evangelists and insist there is Katsu Imamura, and then there is everyone else. I’m leery with such hyperbolic proclamations, but after sitting three feet from Katsu, I joined the ministry.” The price of omakase at the counter is $80, and Pang calls it “a pricey down payment with no guarantees. But I had to cast inhibitions aside. Believe in this man who’s put in his 10,000 hours to be sanctioned an expert. With Katsu, you just have to let go and take the trust fall.” [Tribune]

By lucky coincidence, Mike Sula is also on the sushi beat, hailing another new contender (after Kai Zan a month or two back) for new sushi star. It’s a Streeterville omakase specialist called Masaki, where chef Jinwood Han’s “multicourse menus look nothing like the pro forma selections of sashimi, nigiri, and silly signature rolls pushed at any of the hundreds of middling raw-fish peddlers across the city (see [his former employer] Blue Ocean). It’s omakase in name only, but Han’s menus display a wide diversity of raw fish and cooked creations not seen anywhere in the city—even at its current highest points, such as at Katsu, or more recently, Arami.” [Reader]

Michael Nagrant finds a star on Cicero near Belmont in Sol de Mexico, owned by Carlos Tello, but whose foundation is lead chef Clementina Flores, “once nanny to Chef Rick Bayless’ daughter, and mother to Chicago’s mole king Geno Bahena (of the now defunct Chilpancingo, Ixcapuzalco, and Real Tenochtitlan).” (She’s also Tello’s mother-in-law.) He calls the unctuous moles “a tablecloth or a white oxford shirt’s greatest nightmare. But at Sol de Mexico, stains are a given, for it is impossible not to rip voraciously at the juicy crosshatched, bone-in pork chop and the braised accompanying pineapple splashed with mancha manteles. There is no dainty way to sop up the beautiful cinnamon and fruity tomato-infused sauce.” [Sun-Times]

In CS, Nagrant hails the Trenchermen for mashing not only the Sheerin Bros.’ styles— “sometimes outrageous, sometimes inspiring—but also often grounded in pristine local ingredients and classic technique”— but also high and low: “But for every fancy four-star-restaurant-level dish like [the Sepia noodles], there’s also a reminder that the Sheerins are guy’s guys, and no plate is more emblematic than the Pickle Tots. In what is best described as Napoleon Dynamite meets Thomas Keller, the Sheerins take a tater tot, but substitute a bit of the potato filler with chopped pickle, which with every bite squirts a bit of dill acidity that cuts through all the fat. And that’s just one element of the dish. There are also billowing sheets of pounded chicken bresaola (think fancy roast chicken sandwich meat) and pale purple dollops of tangy red onion yogurt dip. In some ways this plate is like a Sunday Night Football deli tray for the aspiring gourmand.” [CS]

BellyQ is loud and trendy, and the monologues of its exceedingly well-trained staff can be eye-rollingly scripted,” begins Julia Kramer. It is a big sceney place the size of an aircraft hangar, no question, but “I see in bellyQ the influence of these years he’s spent dedicated to smallness: Though the menu is crafted like a small book, it’s not overwhelming; Kim is a tremendous cook but an even better editor.” And bellyQ’s vision of Asian barbecue seems to inspire sheer carnivore lust: “Though the thin, bone-in Korean short ribs were perfectly solid, it was the spicy lemongrass chicken that stole the show with its heady, even heat. Flakes of fried shallot give the intensely, absurdly fatty lamb ribs just the slightest bit of crunch: Torn from the bones and stuffed into steamed buns with crisp slaw and a dollop of Kim’s perfected sauces, the dish becomes pure gustatory pleasure. Journeys to the quiet corners of the menu yielded marvelous discoveries, like the lentil soup, a translucent, heat-backed broth filled with tender little lentils and diced silky tofu.” [TOC]

Vettel Bows to Four Star Next Kyoto; Pang Finds Classic Katsu, Sula Hails Up and