Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ai Japanese Restaurant and Lounge

I have mentioned in the past that I really like sushi.  I don't, however, go to sushi restaurants often because many of my friends are intimidated by sushi, thinking that it is simply raw fish.  There are a few sushi places that I really like and given the right opportunity, will go irregardless of whether I have company or not.  Ai Japanese Restaurant and Lounge is one of those places.  It is one of my favorite sushi bars and the fact that it had a nice looking offer for Restaurant Week prompted me to go for a visit.  While most places offer a three course prix fixe for Restaurant Week, the main dinner menu was five courses, only one of which was actually sushi, with an offer of an additional nigiri course for an upcharge.  Five courses sounded like a large enough dinner so I refrained from going for the extra sushi course.  While the restaurant is located in the River North neighborhood and is close to the highway, it is really off the beaten path on Ontario St west of the highway entrance.  It isn't generally an area that is wandered through because it isn't exactly the easiest area to get to.   The restaurant/lounge is very nice with a high unfinished ceiling decorated with finished wood beams used as part of the design and the floors are hardwood.  The walls were old brick with abstract Japanese Art and there are wall hangings and the furniture were purple velvet.  The sushi bar is in the middle of the room which is where I sat so I could watch the chefs work.  The bar itself is marble and the front is glass showing all of the fish and seafood.  As I said, I came to Ai for the prix fixe for Restaurant Week.  And while it did all look very good, I was a little surprised that there was only one course in the meal that was sushi.  For my first course, I started with a soup. It was a Kabocha Squash and Corn Soup that was garnished with Chives.  This soup was thick and creamy with flavors of corn and squash (as might be expected).  It was also a little grainy which I imagine came from the corn but it was still good.  It was very good and given a larger serving size, could have easily worked as a main dish.

For my next course, we went for what was essentially the Japanese version of a Beef Carpaccio.  It was called Beef Tataki and consisted of thinly sliced beef topped with Daikon Radishes, Carrots, Chives, and a Soy Sauce.  The beef was lightly seared to hold in the juices.  It was very tender and the crunchiness of the Daikon, Carrots, and Chives combined well with the beef.  The soy sauce was lightly added so it was possible to eat the other components without their having been doused in soy sauce.  While the sauce was nice and did add to the dish, it was really a bonus because the beef and vegetables were good without the soy sauce.

The next course was the sushi.  It was a Maki (roll)  called a Chef Hemmi Spicy Tuna Roll (after the chef) and it consisted of five rolls of spicy tuna (with rice and seaweed), each topped with something different.  Visually, it was a very striking dish.  Each of the rolls brought something different although several did add spicy to spicy.  In any case, they were all very good.  The first roll was topped with Cucumber Wrapped Tempura Flakes and Wasabi Mayo which added spicy to spicy.  Normally, I am not a huge fan of tempura flakes because I find them too fishy but between the cucumber, the wasabi, and the spicy tuna, the fishiness of the tempura was lost (which was fine with me).  The next roll also added spicy to spicy.  It was topped with Masago (Capelin Roe) and Jalapeno.  It was salty, spicy, and did have a light fishiness to it but it wasn't bad.  The next roll was spicy from the tuna but the topping was not.  It was topped with Rosemary and Walnuts which gave it a distinctive herbal and nutty flavor but it wasn't exceptionally spicy.  I am going to guess that this was kind of to give your tongue a little bit of a break because the next two courses also added spicy to spicy in their own way.  The next roll was topped with Avocado, Spicy Mayo, and Ikura (Salmon Roe).  The avocado added a creaminess and the salmon roe added a salty salmon taste (in addition to the spice from the tuna and the mayo).  The last roll was topped with a Spicy Tako (Octopus).  I like octopus normally but this was very tender and the spice of the octopus added to the spice of the tuna.  While I said that I liked all of them, this was my favorite.  It seemed that I had saved the best for last.

While the next course was fish, it was very definitely not prepared as sushi.  It was a Grilled Scottish Salmon topped with Rosemary Walnuts and Pistachios, Teriyaki Sauce, and Tomato and Zucchini Skewers (and a side salad).  I will admit that while I can use chopsticks and I had used chopsticks through the meal, I am very definitely not an expert with them and when this was served, I foresaw some difficulty.  I ate the zucchini and tomatoes as they were served, on their skewers.  I was able to eat the nuts and the salad with chopsticks, but the salmon filet was difficult.  I did end up eating it with chopsticks but it was a chore.  What I ended up doing was tearing off pieces from the edges.  It was luckily very tender despite the crisp skin and the teriyaki sauce provided an additional complementing flavor.  While it was difficult to eat, it was very good.  Although I think if I happen to  have it again, I will definitely ask for a knife and fork.

The last course was dessert and from my previous experiences at other Japanese restaurants, I would say that I would not normally order dessert at a Japanese restaurant because there are some very popular Japanese desserts (one of which was served here) that I just don't understand.  As the dessert was part of the dinner though, I was going to try it.  I had a Chocolate Mousse with Chocolate Whipped Cream served with a Chocolate Mochi with Coffee Ice Cream.  The Mousse and whipped cream weren't bad, nor was the coffee ice cream.  The thing that I have an issue with is the mochi (which was also chocolate although that was not the problem).  Mochi are a sweet rice cake made with glutinous rice and the texture reminds me of an overboiled hard-boiled egg white.  While they seem to be very popular among some people, I can't get past the rubbery texture.  I did eat it but I can't say it was my favorite thing and I wouldn't mind if I never had it again.

Despite the mochi in the dessert, I really liked my dinner here.  I like the space, the waitress was attentive and friendly, and it was very cool watching the sushi chefs work.  This will remain one of my favorite sushi places and I will very definitely be back.

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