Long before Japonais served its first lilac-topped martini, River North’s Shino Restaurant was the place in town for Japanese traditions served up with European flair. The culmination of Hitoshi Tamura’s travels through Europe in his twenties after leaving Japan, Shino came complete with a maitre d’, a parlor-like lounge, a lower-level sushi bar, a mah-jongg room, and a beautiful hostess, Tamura’s wife Mitsue “Shino,” who greeted guests while Hitoshi cooked. In 1984, six years after it opened, Shino was destroyed in a fire. But three years later, the Tamuras found a new space and reopened as Cafe Shino, providing a home away from home for Japanese businessmen to loosen their ties and sing karaoke while hostesses kept the whiskey glasses full. For the last two decades, Cafe Shino has seen moderate success with that traditional formula, but when Hitoshi succumbed to cancer this May, his son Kerry was inspired to make some changes.
“I saw my father’s death as a higher calling for me to continue his legacy,” Kerry says. “But because of the economy, many of our regular customers have been sent back to Japan, and business has been really tough, so I decided it was time to open up a real Japanese experience to a wider audience and increase awareness of the world of sake, which really has been bastardized in America by sake bombs.”
Shortly after his father died, Kerry gave the split-level room a makeover—painting the walls a plummy hue, relocating the karaoke machine to a private back room, moving in cushy low lounge-style seating and a plasma that shows colorful anime films—as well as overhauling the drink list, adding a handful of sake cocktails and nearly two dozen sake bottles in various grades and price ranges. He rechristened the lounge Murasaki and reopened with his mother by his side should the old regulars come calling and wind up confused.
With newbies, Kerry is incredibly patient and knowledgeable at guiding them through the sake list, explaining the nuances, brewing methods and geographic influences with true passion about the subject. He’s also happy to recommend picks from the menu of otsumami, traditional small plates like crispy-edged hot-dog bites, baby octopus with a delicate plum flavor, spicy salmon hand rolls and tofu-topped udon noodles in a satisfyingly salty soy broth.
The karaoke room (as well as the hostesses happy to make conversation in their mother tongue) is still available by reservation, but as a recent visit saw Kerry deftly blending coconut lemongrass sake with lychee liqueur and playing iPod DJ with tunes from Jose Gonzalez and Radiohead, Hitoshi Tamura’s house of Japanese traditions is entering version 3.0.
211 E Ontario St (312-266-2280). El: Red to Grand. Bus: 2, 3, X3, 66, 145, 146, 147, 151, 157. Mon–Fri 6pm–2am; Sat 8pm–2am. Average small plate: $5.