It's in a boutique hotel, but this combination of sushi and steak won't inspire you to stay.
I’d like to say that my first meal at Ajasteak was ruined purely by the other guests in the restaurant. There was the pair of businessmen who, when they saw that they were about to be seated next to my decidedly unbusinesslike companion and I, sneered and ordered that they be delivered to another table. There was the 70-year-old woman sitting behind us who was wearing a sweater with the letters “DVDN” written in rhinestones over each of her breasts, which was distracting to say the least. And there was one gentleman, if he can be called that, who sent back his Kobe steak and proceeded to loudly lecture the manager about what a shoddy job the restaurant was doing, and how the only guy who puts out a truly good Kobe in this country is Wolfgang Puck (who isn’t serving Kobe at his O’Hare or MCA cafés, his only local operations, so the relevance of the comment was lost on me).
Yet as annoying as the fellow diners were, the sad truth is that Ajasteak was doing a fine job of providing a mediocre experience on its own. The terribly awkward (and not very attractive) room didn’t get things off to a great start—the space seems better suited for a lounge-cum-Continental-breakfast-buffet á la Embassy Suites, not a restaurant that boasts chefs and managers from restaurants like Morimoto and Buddakhan. And just as the space is awkward, so too is the menu. I had hoped that the mix of sushi and steak would make more sense in context, but the convergence of sushi (by nature subtle and light) and steak (which, by nature, is not) is just as perplexing in practice as it is in theory. Some appetizers attempt to take sushi in other directions by adding tuna to deviled eggs (a mostly textural addition that’s fairly innocuous but not unpleasant) and hamachi to guacamole (a surprisingly nice combination, the fish adding a lush, clean counterpoint to the sharp citrus and jalapeño). There’s also an attempt to bring steak into sushi with barbecue beef maki. It’s not as off-putting as it sounds. Of course, that’s not saying much.
The steak is much better eaten on its own. The Wagyu I tried was expertly seasoned, boasting a saltiness that highlighted the beef’s naturally robust flavor. But the sauces served with it (a housemade steak sauce among them) were all dominated by sugar, which overpowered the meat’s nuances. The miso-glazed black cod is also a sweet dish, but of course here it’s supposed to be, and the fish’s delicate flesh is so well-cooked that the heavy-handed miso is forgivable.
Unforgivable is the expensive sushi. It’s unremarkable and overpriced across the board and, occasionally, as with a piece of sake (salmon) I tried, even a little mushy. (Sweet grilled Flying Bird shrimp, served on skewers in an appetizer, fared much better than its raw counterpart.) Also unforgivable: the tasteless, overly battered rock shrimp and the burger, served medium to medium-well when we had requested medium-rare to our painfully uninformed lunch server. I’m even inclined to hold the restaurant’s cocktails against it, because the drinks are so strong you won’t be able to climb the stairs to the bathroom after just one. Then again, if you’re going to risk Ajasteak’s snobby clientele and inconsistent food, a strong cocktail may be exactly what you need.