Monday, June 24, 2019

Chicago Eats: Kaisho Lounge at Yūgen

One of the most memorable and incredibly delicious meals I have had in a long time was in the Kaisho Lounge at Yūgen, in Chicago's hip West Loop.
Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Mentaiko Carbonara
Mentaiko Carbonara
In preparation for my trip, I had stalked a few Chicago food accounts on Instagram, and saw a dish called Mentaiko Carbonara that sounded amazing. I knew that Friday night would be my only opportunity to go, and fortunately, my friends were amenable to my plan of getting there just before they opened at 5 pm.  Yūgen is a prix-fixe omakase restaurant (starting at $200+ person), whereas its front lounge, Kaisho has a la carte ordering. We ending up having the entire lounge to ourselves and the staff was amazing.

Only open for about six months, Yūgen is helmed by Executive Chef Mari Katsumura, and they are already getting attention in Chicago for their outstanding dishes, both in taste and presentation. As well as being one of the few spots that is completely run by women; in addition to Chef Mari, the pastry chef, beverage director, and general manager are all women.
Yugen Chicago

Yugen Chicago dining room
Main Yugen dining room
Turns out, Beverage Director Olivia Noren was our server in the lounge. While my friends had Chandon, I opted for this unique summery cocktail, called Shizen, made with vodka infused with chrysanthemum, muddled shiso leaves, and yuzu juice (a tart citrus, like a grapefruit/lemon cross). Other than perfectly balanced, I am not sure how to describe the flavors, but I loved it!

Shizen cocktail at Yugen: chrysanthemum vodka, shiso, yuzu
Shizen: chrysanthemum vodka, shiso, yuzu juice

Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Chex Mix
Fun crispies: Japanese Chex Mix with kombu, ramen, udon and edamame
Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Chicken Karaage
No doubt, some of the very best Chicken Karaage (with shiso aioli) that I have ever had. Juicy and crisp.
Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Mentaike Carbonara
The Mentaiko Carbonara, or Japan meets Italy. Udon noodles, with a uni (sea urchin) butter, tempura crumbs, and chiffonade of  nori. An incredible umami bomb! Great variety of textures.
Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Ramen Raviolo
Olivia could tell we were enjoying our dishes as well as our time in Kaisho, as we were the only ones in the lounge and the main dining room only had a few patrons at the early dinner hour. The kitchen sent out a Ramen Raviolo, one of the previous night's specials. Was this ever a treat! Bathed in tonkotsu (pork) broth, this fat little raviolo had pork shoulder meat inside, with crispy chicken skin sitting on top. In some ways a deconstructed bowl of ramen, and again, more play on the Japan meets Italy theme.

Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Milk + Cookies
This shake down of  Milk + Cookies for dessert was as creative as the "cracked" plate it sat upon. Meringue wafers on cookie crumbs and a caramel sauce all just melted together in your mouth.
Kaisho Lounge at Yugen: Menu
Kaisho's menu

Yugen's kitchen
After our meal, Olivia invited us back into the kitchen, which was immaculate. Hot prep on the left, cold on the right, with the expediter at the ready.
Pastry Chef Jeanine Lamadieu clowns around while presenting us with a jellied tomato apertif in shochu. I was slightly nervous at first as I have had other jellied items while in Japan that I didn't care for (looking at you, egg yolk) but this was mild and went down easily.  I can best compare it to a tomato gum drop.
The four gender-neutral single bathrooms were also works of art, and Olivia explained each was named after one of the four seasons. All had elements of beautiful stone work, and then some other interesting element like a huge geode or hefty driftwood. Winter was my favorite, with its sparkly stack-stone quartz wall and reverse-relief sink that ran the entire length of the counter top.

You can't see the relief texture of the sink, but it was there! Drain hole on far right, "downhill" from the flow.

All in all an experience that won't soon be forgotten. If you're in Chicago, stop by Kaisho for a cocktail or meal, and experience what "Yūgen" is all about -- an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words. And as they say in Japan before a meal: Itadakimasu.