Our first big anniversary dinner in Chicago was at Japonais by Morimoto. We had already made a reservation for the following night at a high-end price fixe restaurant and wanted something totally different from that for our first dinner. Japonais was the perfect choice.
Apparently, this restaurant was taken over and re-vamped by Chef Morimoto (you know, one of the Iron Chefs) not too long ago. They seem to be very successful, as the place was packed. And quite noisy. A cool thing? Chef Morimoto is there most nights apparently, including this night and we got lots of pictures of him working hard in his kitchen (our table was pretty close to the sushi bar).
After glancing through the menu, we wanted pretty much everything on the cold starters page and decided to just go with small plates. It was a wise decision because we got to try lots of things and nearly all of them were great. They want you to order everything at once, but they do a pretty good job at spacing them out. And they’re pretty flexible if you decide you might need “just one more thing.”
The star of the night for us was the tuna “pizza.” ($16). It was this super crisp, almost buttery, wafer thin tortilla on the bottom topped with very thin maguro tuna, the most amazing anchovy aioli, olives, jalapenos, and micro cilantro. Whoa, was this good. The aioli was tangy but salty (and not fishy at all) and the jalapenos gave it a bit of heat (even if you didn’t eat them, just from them sitting on the fish, there was a bit of residual flavor). I loved the olives (of course) and thought it was an interesting thing to add—not something you see with Japanese food often, but kicking up the briny taste. This would absolutely be a must order dish on any return visit.
We also got the toro tartare ($26). This dish is totally cool. Hubby and I had seen it on one of those “best things I’ve ever eaten” shows and wanted it then—so we were excited to get to try it. They give you this flat glass dish with the toro on it—it’s basically pureed into a paste almost. You use this little flat utensil to scoop out a little and drag it through the other dish that contains nori paste, guacamole, chives, wasabi, sour cream and these little crispy rice balls. Then you dipped it into a light soy-based sauce. It was really fun and very tasty. I really like the way the rice balls and chives added texture. It was one of the more challenging dishes to eat (stuff kept falling off) but it was really good.
We also had the Hamachi tacos ($10). It’s funny—if I had these any other place, I would have been wowed. Crispy wonton shells filled with large dices of Hamachi, avocado, tomato, Serrano and jalapeno peppers and yuzu kosho (a yuzu/chili paste combo)—how can you go wrong? The yuzu, tomatoes plus the limes served alongside gave that kick of acid I crave and the fish was impeccably fresh. In comparison, it just didn’t have the combo of flavors and variations in textures that some of the other dishes had that really pushed them over the top. I’d be ordering them right and left if they were on a menu in Indy though. Still a really good choice.
Hubby got excited after realizing that had fatty tuna (oh-toro) nigiri on the menu and really wanted to get some. It was the only real sushi item we had for the meal. It’s market priced on the menu, and expensive ($13 per piece on this night). The rice here is “hand polished” and while I can’t tell you exactly how that affects the flavor, I can say that you could really taste each individual grain of rice and there was a slight al dente bite to it. The tuna was melt in your mouth tender, but I didn’t care for the small amount of wasabi they put between the rice and the fish. To me, it detracted. Hubby loved it though. I don’t need to get such an expensive piece of nigiri in the future, but it was fun to try.
At this point, we moved into the warm part of the meal and kicked it off with some hot rock American wagyu beef. The beef was very thinly sliced, and you just through it on the smoking hot rock for a minute, just to sear the outside. They gave you 2 kinds of dipping sauces—one was a hot mustard based sauce and the other had a flavor of sesame oil. Both were very good. I went back and forth on which I liked better. It goes quick though. I probably could have eaten another entire plate of the beef, but we moved along.
The last two things we got at the same time—the “Kakuni” ($12) or ten-hour pork belly served in top of rice congee with soy-scallion jus. This dish, or should I say the pork part of it, was the only real miss for me of the evening. The pork was certainly rich in flavor, just too rich and too sweet for me. It was coated in an extremely sweet soy based sauce that was just too much. I loved the rice congee (or rice porridge) underneath it though. It had a wonderful dense consistency almost like grits. We also got our side of duck confit fried rice with an organic egg on top ($9) at this point in the meal. The rice itself was really good—the duck gave it just the right amount of heartiness without being over the top, and the egg yolk gave a nice creaminess to the unique firmness of the rice. It was really well seasoned. The only disappointing part was I would have loved to have eaten it at the same time as the beef rather than at the same time as a dish that also incorporated rice. I also think it would have slowed me down on the beef too. I would order it again and be more specific about when I wanted it.
Since it was our anniversary after all, we decided to get dessert as well, and they presented it nicely with a “Happy Anniversary” on the plate. We had the salted caramel chocolate tart ($10) because we’re both suckers for salted caramel items. It was fairly simple and very tasty. The perfect way to end the meal.
Japonais is certainly a place we are anxious to return to, and I hope to go with friends so we can order more stuff. There is so much that looks so good on the menu. I might try and see if there is anywhere in the restaurant that’s a little quieter, but I’m not sure if there is. And I’m totally ordering that tuna pizza.
Japonais by Morimoto
600 West Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60654