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June 04, 2007

Chiyo Revisited

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Chiyo has closed

Waaaaay back in the infancy of this blog, say, oh, about February of '06, the siren song of the shabu shabu called to me and I responded by dropping in on Chiyo. It was my first visit and while I couldn't find any serious fault, I left mildly disappointed. It was mostly a matter of personal preferences and partly a matter of price performance, but while my objective brain had to admire its merits, my heart knew that it wouldn't become a go-to place for shabu shabu. Just as I was walking out the door, however, the next table fired up a pot of sukiyaki. Were it not for this bit of serendipitous timing, I probably wouldn't have given Chiyo a second thought. But the smell lingered on my mind for over a year, and finally drew me back just this past weekend. Whoever was at the next table that night, thank you. You've done me a great service.

Dominic Armato
The sukiyaki at Chiyo is part of a set menu that includes a small appetizer (in our case, nimame, pictured above), a sashimi plate, rice and pickles and a dessert. The only decision to make is your grade of beef, which is kind of a goofy situation. At our first visit, in addition to the Prime beef, Chiyo hit on one of my pet peeves by offering "Kobe" beef that was actually American-sourced Wagyu, or perhaps a typical Wagyu-Angus crossbreed, I'm not certain. Since then, they've added a third grade, which they've termed "Wagyu", that they're bringing in from Japan and which may, if it's coming from the Kobe prefecture, be true Kobe beef. If so, that means the "Kobe" is Wagyu and the "Wagyu" is Kobe. The "Prime", however, is Prime. To keep it simple, let's just say "Prime" = good, "Kobe" = very good and "Wagyu" = unaffordable. In truth, the "Wagyu" is listed as market price and I didn't ask, but I'd be shocked if they offered that dinner for less than $100, and $150 wouldn't surprise me one bit. If anybody does find out, do comment. It'd be worth a special occasion splurge if it's up to snuff, but it wasn't in the budget for this particular trip.

Dominic Armato
In any case, the beef we received was really excellent. Not at all like the higher grades of Japanese Wagyu, of course, but beautifully marbled with great flavor -- much better than I remember from our first visit. The vegetable plate was similarly impressive, with napa cabbage, spring onions, bamboo, enoki mushrooms, seared tofu, chrysanthemum leaves and some noodles that I believe were ito konnyaku (densely gelatinous and lightly flavored, made from a plant starch), all beautifully fresh. For those not familiar with sukiyaki in its non-premade form, a chunk of beef tallow is added to a heavy, hot metal pot, followed by the vegetables, some of the beef and a broth made with soy sauce, sake and sugar. Once the beef and vegetables are cooked, they're dipped into a dish of raw egg before being eaten. If the prospect of raw egg makes you squeamish, suck it up and give it a go. Is there some small risk involved? Sure. But it's low enough on the risk assessment scale that you owe it to yourself to at least try it the way it's meant to be eaten. 'Sides which, just try telling me you've never licked the bowl after mixing up a batch of cookie dough ... that's what I thought.

Dominic Armato
But back to the topic at hand.

Chiyo's sukiyaki does everything right. It isn't as though it's a complicated dish. Like so many traditional Japanese foods, the beauty of sukiyaki is in its simplicity. Preparing it doesn't require an abundance of technical knowhow. If you source quality ingredients and don't screw up the balance of the broth, congratulations, you've made yourself a damn fine sukiyaki! And yet, so many places somehow manage turn it into a sickly sweet mess. Not so with Chiyo. The broth was appropriately intense without being cloying. Quality sake and soy were clearly in use here, and the flavors supported the beef rather than burying it. It's no Zakuro (neither are the prices), but Chiyo's sukiyaki made me very, very happy. Chiyo's service, on the other hand, was somewhat frustrating.

Dominic Armato
We were helped, I believe, by Chiyo herself; a perfectly cheery and pleasant woman. But despite our insistence that we were veteran sukiyaki diners, we received her full attention for what must have been ten minutes. She supplied us with full descriptions of every ingredient, right down to the nutritional information on some, and only surrendered the service chopsticks after my fourth or fifth attempt to explain that we preferred to do it ourselves. She's a sweet lady who was only trying to be friendly and helpful, and it was the kind of attention that would be absolutely invaluable to somebody not familiar with the process. But for us, it was frustrating to have to fight for control of the pot. The "let us do everything for you" approach is entirely appropriate for Japanese service, but I personally subscribe to the "swish your own" school of thought.

Dominic Armato
This was a minor blemish, however, on the face of an otherwise beautiful meal. Our dessert was equally lovely, a creamy and lightly sweet green tea custard with a few bites of fresh fruit. As previously mentioned, my price performance complaints from our first visit were mainly centered on the beef. But on Friday, I walked out feeling that the meal we received was worth every penny. The quality of the beef was much more impressive this time around, as was the quality of the evening's real revelation, the sashimi plate. Five pieces of raw fish preceded the main event. There was tai, shima aji and albacore, all delicious. But the star was a pair of tuna slices, the exact nature of which I didn't catch. They were feather soft, light and silky, and they dissolved beautifully on the tongue with a creamy richness. Though the nabemono and kaiseki are the restaurant's stated specialties, there's also a small six seat sushi bar along one wall. The sashimi plate was just a tease. As good as the sukiyaki was, the next time we go back it'll be for the fish.

3800 W. Lawrence Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
Wed - Mon5:00 PM - Midnight


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