A vetted chef returns to Chicago, bringing a stellar restaurant with him.
Reviewing mediocre restaurants is a challenge. When met with a restaurant that shows no personality and food that is simply “meh,” the writer resorts to playing up some sort of anecdote to create an interesting read. And not to sound like Debbie Downer, but there are a lot of mediocre restaurants out there. So when something like Restaurant Takashi comes along, it’s a relief. There’s no need to beat around the bush; it’s an excellent restaurant.
The man behind the moniker, Takashi Yagihashi, knows his stuff and has proved it, going from Ambria’s much lauded kitchen of the early ’90s to winning the Best Chef: Midwest James Beard Award in 2003 for Tribute in the Detroit suburbs. Some called his food modern French with an Asian twist, others would say contemporary Japanese with French technique, but however you word it, it’s clear that chef Yagihashi has figured out how to combine his heritage with his training, and the results are impressive.
Now he has hit a practiced, well-earned stride, in what couldn’t be a better setting. In the cozy Bucktown A-frame that most recently housed Scylla, but now exudes a decidedly more Zen atmosphere, chef Yagihashi creates beautiful food that’s delicate, subtle and perfectly balanced, each dish hitting all five tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, or savory. Take the kampachi appetizer (or “small plate” as the menu dubs it), pristine slabs of young yellowtail sashimi, glistening atop a bed of shredded napa cabbage that’s been gently tossed in a traditional Japanese vinaigrette of yuzu, soy and bonito flakes. To counter the sweet and sour citrus and the salty soy, a dollop of steamed monkfish liver and a tiny garlic chip are stacked onto each piece of fish, with tiny strands of chervil and chiles completing the package. It’s a starter that quietly whispers, “You’re in the house of a pro.”
Balance and finesse are the continuing threads throughout the meal, evident again in the winter roll (a cylinder of prosciutto, mildly briny shrimp, bitter mizuna and barely sweet tomato concassé in silky rice paper), the tofu trio (cool cubes sporting three distinct flavors, including a delicious combo of fresh seaweed and cucumber tossed in mirin, rice vinegar and chile oil) and the “bad hair day” (fat shrimp rolled in ohba leaves and shredded phyllo, flash-fried and plated on a shallow pool of “sauce Chinois,” a French take on Chinese flavors that adds ginger, garlic, and sesame oil to tomato, red pepper and onions).
You could work your way through small plates like these all night, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a flaw. But if you want to move on to entrées, go for the perfectly seared hamachi or crispy skinned chicken. After a bit of roasting, the plump bird is finished in a clay pot alongside shimeji mushrooms, okra and eggplant, with a splash of yuzu for zing. Its only fault also could be said of the duck—leg meat was tender and juicy, but the breast was slightly chewy. Still, these quibbles did little to mar the meal, especially with endings like Michael Florance’s subtly sweet desserts. Goat-milk panna cotta’s smooth, creamy, slightly sour base is capped by tart yuzu gelée and served with a perfect green-tea buttercream macaroon, while the warm, tart-shaped financier hides baked-in pears and is paired with a faintly sweet honey ice cream. Like the experience as a whole—from the space and the service to the easily navigable wine list—it’s polished, balanced and a welcome addition to Chicago’s dining scene.