April 24, 2007

The Gadabout—April 24, 2007

In Japanese history, “Meiji” refers to the “enlightened era” that introduced Japan as a new world power. In the world of Chicago restaurants, it refers to the “enlightened sushi” that draws diners in to sample Japanese cuisine.

True to West Loop trendiness, Meiji emanates an aura best described as stylish Zen. The softly lit, white-covered tables, backed by black, cushioned booths and straight bamboo shafts against the walls are arrayed in parallel rows on the sides of the polished hardwood floor. Each place setting comprises two concentric square plates and chopsticks folded in a rectangular napkin. The arrangement, while claustrophobic at peak times, provides enough linearity to soothe any obsessive compulsive.

Meiji’s sushi, a fusion of Eastern concepts and Western embellishments, maintains a surprising loyalty to the food’s Japanese origins. The sushi chef’s station, in clear view at the far end of the restaurant, features two chefs from Japan who use traditional preparation techniques and original ingredients. Most sushi restaurants in the United States offer green-dyed horseradish as a poor substitute for wasabi, but Meiji proudly proclaims it imports the real thing. According to the Internet rumor mill, Meiji also flies in fish fresh from Japan on Thursdays for the weekend rush.

As an appetizer, the tempura ($8) was fairly run-of-the-mill but had a nice crunch and featured an interesting specimen called the ohba leaf. What is an ohba leaf? A recent Google search was not helpful. Apparently, it’s a somewhat exotic vegetable that’s featured at “the most expensive restaurant” in London, the Four Seasons Bangkok, and a sushi bar in the Virgin Islands. If it’s good enough for the Four Seasons Bangkok, it’s good enough for us.

Although premium nigiri and sashimi pieces are available for true aficionados, the makimono rolls are perhaps the most intriguing and affordable dinner options on the menu. We ordered two varieties of the outstanding shogun roll ($16), a concoction of shrimp tempura, cream cheese, spicy mayo, avocado, and scallions. Upon request, our understanding server offered to have the kitchen make our second version of the shogun roll vegetarian ($8). The vegetarian version had somewhat more cream cheese and sweet potato tempura to compensate for the lack of shrimp.

Both versions were artistically rendered: To picture the roll, imagine a dragon with scales of rice drizzled with wasabi mayo and unagi (barbecue) sauce. The obligatory ginger on the side tasted unexpectedly fresh, as did the legitimate wasabi, in comparison to the offerings of other sushi restaurants. The individual rolls themselves could be thought of as sumo wrestlers, in that they were large and quite difficult to eat with chopsticks. Though we grew desperate for forks and knives, we got the impression that using Western cutlery would disrupt the experience that Meiji has so carefully crafted.

The dessert options carry the restaurant through to a brilliant finish. More and more curious options, like the green tea mille feuille ($7), and mochi flight ($10), continue the culture-blending tradition, but leave diners struggling to choose their own ending. The dessert we ultimately decided on, ginger crème brûlée ($7) was absolutely perfect, with an unobtrusive creaminess, inoffensive sweetness, and, most importantly, unassuming overtones of ginger that make the original French creation seem lacking.

Although our egos suffered what amounts to death-by-chopstick at Meiji, they found an easy balm in the flavors and textural interplay of our meal, from the crispy tempura and the beaded rice to the hard caramel atop the soft crème brûlée. The wasabi mayo, a particular standout, was just one example of how the chefs take a boring, Western concept and transform it into something Meiji—something hip, Japanese, and delicious.