Sunday, August 28, 2011
Every time I think that I have a handle on Japanese cuisine, another restaurant opens and adds something new and different. Although Chizakaya has been open for about a year, I had yet to go to it until this last weekend. I took advantage of a daily deal coupon to get an 8 course meal which gave me a pretty good idea what it was about. Chizakaya is an Izakaya, a Japanese Sake joint that is kind of a cross between a gastropub and a tapas restaurant. It is a bar that serves small plate style food that is shared amongst the table. There was a wide variety of styles and techniques represented on the menu. Most of the dishes are pretty simple but even in their simplicity, there are a few that would challenge even an adventurous eater such as myself. While it can be safe enough for a timid eater, it can also give an adventurous eater the chance to explore. In front of the restaurant is a wooden bench (like a bus station bench, but nicer). It had a container with menus in it. I am going to guess the bench is a pseudo-waiting area for when the establishment gets busy. In order to enter the restaurant, you actually have to walk around the bench. The floor is hardwood and the tables in the restaurant are all black wood two tops which can be arranged fairly easily for larger parties. The bar is in the back of the room but there was a shelf on either side of the room with several bottles. The ceiling was tall, arched and painted light blue with murals of a male warrior on one side and what I might guess was a princess on the other. The front wall is glass with a typical Japanese-style vertical blind in front of it. The only thing that I found slightly odd was the music selection which was all hip hop. The only thing that I can think is possibly in trying to put a Chicago spin on the izakaya, they went with the American version of what might be played in a Japanese Izakaya.
When I was seated, I was presented with a cold towel with which to wipe my hands. I then ordered a cocktail (Pampelmouse, a high end gin with a housemade grapfruit liqueur) and was told about the courses that I would be served (My coupon was for a fixed menu deal). My dinner began with a couple of oysters served with scallions and sriracha. I like oysters although admittedly I am not an expert on them and don't know if I could tell one from another but these were pretty good. The scallions were on top and went down with the oyster and the sriracha combined with the liquor to provide a slightly spicy finish.
After the oysters, I was presented with the salad. They didn't call it a salad, they called it prosciutto and pears but it came with a lot of arugula which is a salad green so I have to say that it was a salad (especially since I have had something very similar to this that was presented as a salad). The utensils that I had at the table consisted of a single set of chopsticks. While I can use chopsticks, I will say that I am kind of clumsy with them but I decided to work on my proficiency instead of asking for a fork. All of the elements of this; the arugula, the pears and the proscuitto were easy enough to handle with chopsticks and while I like proscuitto and arugula, I can't stand pears. I did eat everything but the pears were not my favorite.
From the salad, we went to what are called Kushi Yaki, or skewers. I was presented with 2 skewers, the first was three shishito peppers with bonito flakes, and the second was essentially spiced and buttered corn on the cob. I had never had shishito peppers before and I really didn't know what to expect. I was presented with 3 peppers skewered together on two skewers with bonito flakes on top. They are green and wrinkled and about the size of a jalapeno so I was sure that I was going to have to deal with fire in my mouth but they were surprisingly mild. I have to admit though, that I don't get the bonito flakes. I have to think they are added to provide flavor but they look and smell like large fish food flakes and don't provide a flavor that I am particularly fond of. It might be a cultural thing (like natto) but I don't think it added anything to the peppers and if I were to have them again, I would remove the bonito flakes. The corn on the cob was fairly standard corn on the cob with butter, salt, and pepper added. It was pretty good but it's hard to screw up correctly cooked corn on the cob.
From the skewers, we went to a Japanese street food called takoyaki. Takoyaki is (are?) battered and fried balls of octopus served with barbecue sauce. It also was served with the hated bonito flakes. Under the flakes were a couple of balls of dough about the size of a small handball. I tried the takoyaki and really liked it. It had the texture of a well cooked fritter and the octopus flavor, while a little subtle was there. The barbecue sauce was in a light layer at the bottom of the bowl and was of the sweeter type. I like octopus, I like barbecue sauce, and I like fried batter. Once I got through the bonito flakes, it was a total win.
From the street, we went to the sports bar. I was served the world's largest chicken wing which had a deep fried batter and more barbecue sauce called a Chicken Donburi. It was served with a slow poached egg and some rice. Here is where I got some work with the chopsticks. The egg was easy enough. It was like a slightly soft hard-boiled egg that was cut in half. I asked the waitress how I was expected to eat the chicken and was told with my hands and chopsticks. Primarily what I used was my hands to eat it. The batter on the chicken was very crunchy, the barbecue sauce was light and the chicken was nice and juicy. What was really fun was trying to eat the rice with chopsticks. If it was stickier, it would have been easier to handle but I was able to eventually get most of it. While this was good, between the chicken and the rice, I definitely needed a wet cloth to clean my hands after finishing this plate.
My last savory course was ramen. I was given a spoon to eat this. As I said before, there is no comparison between the dried ramen that you get in a grocery store and the ramen that is served in a Japanese restaurant. The ramen served here had braised pork, another slow poached egg, and a fish ball. The broth was dark and very savory, the pork was tender and everything else was also very good. Ramen noodles are pretty narrow, so I will say that I did get a little sloppy when I was slurping them up but I enjoyed doing it.
We then came to dessert and I had two dessert courses. The first was a strawberry sorbet with strawberries, and broken brown sugar cookies and while it was good, I really couldn't see the Japanese in it. Even so, I did enjoy it. The flavor was bright and fresh and the brown sugar cookie added a nice crunchy texture to it.
While the first dessert wasn't really Japanese, the second definitely was. It was a sesame mochi. Mochi is a rice cake made from glutinous sweet rice that has been pounded into a paste. The mochi ball itself had the texture of a stiff marshmallow. These were formed into a ball and two were served on a skewer. They were served on a paste of dark sesame paste. The sweet and sesame flavors actually went together pretty well and I did like it.
I really liked Chizakaya. It was an interesting experience that I enjoyed. While it was fine by myself, it would be fun with a group and it has enough variety that you can have both pretty safe and pretty daring in the same meal.