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By Emily Paster
I have figured out the secret to getting a table at the hottest restaurant in town without resorting to bribing the maître'd or pretending to a celebrity: go on Super Bowl Sunday. That's how I scored a seat at Yusho, the restaurant that Saveur magazine called awe-inspiring and original. After the Chicago Food Swap wrapped up last Sunday, I found myself only few blocks from Yusho. With permission from my indulgent husband, who was home with the kids, I seized the opportunity to try this restaurant that I had been dreaming of for months and had very little hope of dragging my husband and kids to. I was concerned about crowds given the amount of local and national press that Yusho has received, but found instead an almost empty restaurant. I happily settled in at the bar — the savior of solo diners — to try the Japanese-inspired fare.
The cuisine at Yusho is inspired by Japanese street food. But this is no hole-in-the-wall. The owner, Matthias Merges, is the former exceutive chef at Charlie Trotter's. So, in other words, Yusho is street food with a pedigree. While inspired by Japanese cuisine, the food at Yusho draws from what Saveur calls "a global pantry." So imagine foie gras with water chestnuts and Buddha's hand. The common denominator is the hot grill to draw out the most intense flavors from these ingredients.
I visited Yusho on a Sunday, as you know. Sundays are special at Yusho because on that day the restaurant offers a pre-fixe menu called "Sunday Noodles." For $20, you get to chose either the draught cocktail of the day or a housemade soda, one of five noodles dishes and dessert. That's an incredible bargain. There are some à la carte items available as well to supplement your noodles, which range from $4 to $9.
I selected the house cocktail for my beverage. It happened to be a blood orange gin rickey, which was funny considering that I had just swapped blood orange marmalade, syrup and sugar at the food swap. The draught cocktail changes frequently, so you should not expect to find the same one I had. Pity, because it was delicious and gorgeous to look at. The adorable bartender actually replaced mine midway through the meal because he was concerned mine was too pulpy. So I really had 1.5 cocktails. Score!
I had to try one of the appetizers, so I selected the pickled quail's egg with charred kombu (a kind of edible kelp) and broccoli rabe over lettuce. The quails' eggs came on a little wooden skewer over the greens. I absolutely loved the tiny eggs, which were perfectly hard cooked so that the yolk was still melty and had a very light pickle on them. The kombu gave the accompanying salad a wonderfully briny taste.
For my noodle dish, I chose the Logan Poser Ramen with crispy pig's tail, hen's egg, nori and cucumber. "Logan" is a reference to Yusho's location in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. The "poser" is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Momofuku chef David Chang who allegedly said that anyone who makes ramen outside of Japan is "just posing." Well, that guy is famously unfiltered.
The crispy pig's tail arrived on a skewer suspended over the bowl. It was a long rectangle — I'm still not sure how they got it that shape — with a crispy coating and inside, meltingly tender bites of shredded pork. Having eaten oxtail, I decided not to be weirded out by eating pig's tail. I gather some people dip the pig tail into the broth but I ate mine separately, just enjoying the richness of the meat. The ramen itself was fantastic; I marveled at the complexity of the broth as I drained every last drop.
But I was not done. The special dessert for Sunday Noodles was an eggnog-flavored soft serve — yes, Yusho has its own soft-serve machine — drizzled with Fernet caramel and studded with crunchy bits of nori. Fernet is a bitter spirit with a taste that has been likened to mouthwash. I'm pretty sure that I don't want to drink Fernet but as a flavoring for caramel, it simply adds a slightly bitter, herbal note. The eggnog soft serve was so good that I couldn't resist polishing off the whole bowl. I was less enchanted by the addition of the nori. I liked the saltiness of it but thought it tasted too fishy for dessert. Still, it was a fabulous.
My check came to all of $25 for all of these amazing, bold flavors. I left my nice bartender a good tip for chatting with me while I ate, but even so, Sunday Noodles at Yusho is an unquestionable bargain. Now I just have to find a time to go back and try the regular menu, like the grilled oysters with ponzu or the crispy fried chicken skin.