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March 04, 2007

Katsu

Dominic Armato
When someplace is billed as having the best otoro in the city, I pay attention.

Late to the party as usual (my goal is to someday find a worthwhile restaurant somewhere in the city that hasn't already been exhaustively covered by somebody over at LTH), but my ladylove and I opted to spend a rare night out at Katsu, a north side family-run Japanese restaurant with grub that has been making people weak in the knees. It's a fairly casual and lively little joint with dark walls and bright table spots... the kind amateur food photographers love. It was packed with Japanese transplants and a surprising number of students, at least on the night we were there, and managed by a staff that's extremely attentive and almost overly anxious to please. It's a neighborhood joint. It just has better fish that most.

Dominic Armato
Of course, it has other things, too. The menu is mostly comprised of traditional dishes, or very slight variations thereon. There's plenty of hot fish, as well as homey stalwarts like tonkatsu, sukiyaki, tempura, teriyaki and the like. Though it probably wasn't the best lead-in to delicate, raw fish, it's hard to turn down veal liver when it's on the specials menu and highly recommended. Chef Katsu's mirareba is subtly seasoned, with a touch of soy and a bit of sweetness, sauteed with garlic chives. It's very mellow as liver goes, especially given the size of the cut. But fish, not liver, was the object of our mission, and so we then, with a certain degree of awkwardness (I think we weren't giving our server quite as much guidance as she would have liked), asked them to bring us a sampling of sushi and sashimi for two... whatever the chef felt was particularly delicious that evening.

Dominic Armato
TRAGEDY... Elvis had left the building before we arrived. Otoro sashimi and nigiri was unavailable. My last otoro experience was two blocks from Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, while visiting Japan in May. There's nothing like otoro two blocks from Tsukiji. Not that I expect find the same 6300 miles from Tsukiji, but a guy can dream, right? In any case, the dream would have to wait for another day.

Nonetheless, we ended up with a rather attractive array of a dozen assorted nigiri pieces, as well as an expanded version of the premium tuna and hamachi plate, which in this case also included some scallops and Tasmanian salmon. Katsu's knife work has been a source of consternation for some. While many consider it Kyoto style, Katsu insists it is, in fact, Katsu style, meaning that the fish cascades over the ends of the rice, down to the plate and further on for an inch or so in both directions. The Katsu Cut is a mouthful, but it's not without purpose. I'm of the opinion that a big mouthful of fish is a different experience than a small taste of raw fish in more ways than are immediately obvious, and both have their merits. Bite if you must, but consume whole if you possess the ability. For the most part, as well as being plentiful, the fish was excellent. The uni and scallop were both absolutely dynamite. The uni was fresh and firm and some of the cleanest-tasting I've had, and the scallop was delightfully creamy without the harshness that I find sometimes accompanies lesser product. The unagi and amaebi were also particularly good. On the latter, I found it notable that Katsu's version of the head isn't the heavily battered and tempura-fried affair you generally see elsewhere. It seems to be lightly dusted with something, but it's largely naked. I was a little surprised to see a spider roll coming from the house plate of a rather traditional establishment, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, even though there wasn't much crisp to the crab.

Dominic Armato
Less impressive were the two elements that would ordinarily comprise the evening's premium sashimi plate. The Tsukiji-sourced yellowtail was quite good, but hardly transcendent, and the Boston bluefin was, frankly, disappointing. Between the missing otoro and the glowing praise that many have applied to this dish, I have to wonder if we simply caught an off night. We opted for round two, arranging a reprise of a few nigiri faves, and... lo and behold... there's an otoro scallion roll that we'd somehow missed on the first pass! It may have been the obliterated leavings of the holy grail, but we were thrilled to have it. The chopped otoro in the roll was really wonderful... all kinds of fatty and silky and rich, just as it should be... but it was still like trying to appreciate Rembrandt while wearing 3D glasses. It mostly left me longing for a full slab of the same. Maybe next time.

Dominic Armato
The disappointment of the night's premium sashimi aside, we really only had one complaint, but it wasn't an insubstantial one. While Katsu is extremely good and clearly a cut above the rest of the Chicago sushi scene, I thought the price performance left something to be desired. I don't mean to draw a comparison between Mr. Matsuhisa's neo-Japanese and Katsu's largely traditional fare, but I've fed four at Nobu for what the two of us spent at Katsu. I probably shouldn't be complaining. It wasn't that long ago that I was lamenting an inability to find a decent sushi bar of any kind, and now I'm fustrated that one of the best offerings is merely excellent. But at that price, dinner should be awesome, and while it was head and shoulders above the local competition, it wasn't the truly superlative experience that I expect at that level. I suspect we could do a better job by being a little more selective, but this is an unusually costly excursion no matter how you cut it.

I dunno. Maybe that's just the price we have to pay for great fish here in Chicago.

Katsu Japanese Cuisine
2651 W. Peterson Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659
773-784-3383
Wed - Mon5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
TuesdayClosed

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