Yugen in Chicago's West Loop offers contemporary Japanese cuisine

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Restaurants come and go all the time, but it was a surprise in the food community when Grace suddenly shut its doors last year in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood.

A legal dispute between the chef, GM and owner led to a high-profile vacancy.

However, a new restaurant called Yugen opened in the space by an all-female executive team, including the pastry chef and led by a chef with deep Chicago culinary roots.

Mari Katsumura is no stranger to fine-dining. Her late father, Yoshi, ran his namesake in Lakeview for some 30 years. And just as her father was a local pioneer, so too, is she.

"Fundamentally, it is contemporary Japanese cuisine. However, we do utilize avant garde technique with Midwestern seasonal ingredients," said Katsumura.

There are two options at play here. Kaisho, the front lounge, and Yugen, the dining room.

"The lounge is a la carte, small bites, cocktail driven. First come, first-served. The dining room is a little more formal, tasting menu format, around 8-10 courses including pastry and that is at a fixed price and optional beverage pairings," she said.

Formal to the tune of about $200 per person, not including drinks. You'll start off with pristine Alaskan king crab, dressed up with osetra caviar; a delicate piece of tamago or egg omelet; maybe a takoyaki, or octopus ball, garnished with shaved black truffle.

There's chawanmushi, a sort of Japanese custard, but here it's garnished with uni, that's sea urchin, plus a luxe ganash of foie gras, some fried kombu, or seaweed and parsnip chips. Pickled berries and kale stems form the base of a dish with earthy mushrooms and baby octopus.

"It's very tender and line-caught. We braise it in advance just to enhance the textures so it's really beautifully cooked prior and then we just crisp it up and add flavor to it on the binchotan grill," said Katsumura.

The Kaisho menu is also creative, but less precious. It features daily specials, like a "ramen" presented in a more European fashion than an Asian one. It's a single raviolo with egg yolk, swimming in a rich pork bone broth, topped with bits of pickled bamboo shoots, then a wedge of crispy chicken skin housing fried shallots, garlic and seaweed. It looks nothing like ramen, but it certainly tastes like it. And Jidori chicken makes for the most delicious yakitori skewers.

"We marinate it overnight in some yuzu kosho, and then the following day we just skewer it and put it on the binchotan," she said.

Yugen has the tasting menu every day, but here in the lounge, in Kaisho, it is a la carte, so a lot of these dishes are considered daily specials like this yakitori, that I just love, only available on Wednesdays for now. So check online just to be sure.

EXTRA COURSE: A look at a pair of the desserts available at Yugen

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EXTRA COURSE: A pair of desserts at Yugen

YUGEN (and Kaisho, the lounge)
652 W. Randolph St., Chicago
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