Fish out of water
A member of Chicago's most famous sushi family goes
out on a limb with Spotlight Steak & Seafood
It must be tough to be David Lee. His younger brother Jim Bee is considered a sushi pioneer for opening Lincoln Park’s Sai Cafe in 1982, when a California roll was considered a novelty, and he recently launched Logan Square’s first sushi joint, Hachi’s Kitchen. Lee’s youngest brother, Bob Bee, owns both the downtown stalwart Naniwa and the Ukie Village hipster haven Bob San. As for Lee, well, let’s just say he’s the apple that fell a bit farther from the tree.
The family’s roots are in China, and the first American outpost for their cooking was Lake Forest’s North China, which Lee owned. The two other brothers, the Bees (different father, hence the different name), concentrated on Japanese food, while Lee dabbled in every cuisine imaginable. He also opened Chinoiserie in Wilmette, but more on that later.
Lee’s latest restaurant, Spotlight Steak & Seafood, is housed in the former Kabul House, a subterranean Afghan restaurant whose multicolored lanterns still hang over the unused bar. A couple of ’80s-style sconces have been added, plus a sushi cooler that sits on the bar—but it’s empty and dark.
The only other diners are two guys in their late twenties who’re mixing their own vodka drinks and have glasses and plates strewn everywhere. We look at our giant pink menus and realize they aren’t for Spotlight but for Chinoiserie. The first thing listed on the menu is “Our Famous Housemade Chips and Salsa.” There are also four cuts listed under a simple heading of “Steak,” some Korean dishes here and there, some recognizable Chinese classics, and a section called “Chnoodles,” which lists Italianish pasta dishes with ginger and soy sauce cream sauces.
When our waiter approaches, we point to our menus and ask if we’re in Spotlight or Chinoiserie. As he explains that Chinoiserie is the owner’s restaurant in Wilmette, my menu catches on fire from the candle in the center of the table. As I stamp it out with a fork, the waiter doesn’t blink—doesn’t even notice. The classical score from Star Wars plays through the overhead speakers. We are most definitely in an alternate reality.
Just then, a wiry Chinese man darts out from the kitchen and says, “Ah, you want sushi, eh? I give you gushi. It comes out all goofy so it’s my gushi. I’m the owner. What else you want? You like spicy? Beef? Crab?”
We decide to ditch the menus and let Lee make whatever he’d like, convinced that this hodgepodge spot couldn’t possibly turn out much to write home about. But it does. The gushi is actually make-your-own-maki, which you build out of dried seaweed papers, warm rice, cooked shrimp, pickled daikon and chili-flecked bean sprouts. A perfectly crisp crab-stuffed scallion pancake follows, then plump, greaseless calamari rings, and finally a pepper-sauced Mongolian beef dish along with a plate of slightly spicy, gingery chunks of pork tenderloin and a bowl of fluffy white rice. Everything we taste is fresh, vibrant, not overly gloopy like Chinese food can be. It seems that aside from the wacky menu, Lee knows his strengths. Like any good chef, he’s trying to make a living out of an arsenal of ideas.
Spotlight Steak & Seafood1629 N Halsted between North Ave and Willow St (312-787-8100). El: Red to North/Clybourn. Bus: 8 Halsted, 72 North. Open: Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $14. BYOB