Kai Zan, Chicago

Summer Salad

You know that you are in a big city when you can find amazing food in local neighborhoods and not just downtown. That is most certainly the case in Chicago! About a month ago we headed into the city to see Book of Mormon (side note: absolutely hilarious, if not completely inappropriate!), after the show we went to Kai Zan for dinner. It is a small, 22-seat, Japanese restaurant in Humboldt Park/Ukrainian Village located by a car garage and a tattoo parlor. The small space is simple and elegantly Japanese making for a warm, comfortable environment. The space is separated into intimate spaces with a light, bright wood. The sushi bar and open kitchen is in the center of the restaurant dividing the two lines of booths. The booths are separated by a beautiful wave pattern which is carved out of wood. We had an early reservation and the place was already bustling. We were seated at the sushi bar which allowed us to watch all the action.

The menu includes sushi, noodle dishes, teppan yaki grill dishes (dishes prepared on an iron grill), and kushi-lava rock char-boil (skewered bite-sized dishes). They offer a flexible omakase menu in which you can set your price and the chefs create a tasting menu of the dishes on the menu. After talking to our waiter we opted to select our own dishes from the a la carte menu.

We tried several dishes but I’ll highlight just a few. We started with a special that evening called the “Summer Salad”. It is not a salad in the traditional sense as it was made primarily of raw fish. It was a mixture of tuna, salmon, capers, scallions, shiso, and dressed with a light citrus based dressing. It was a wonderful introduction to the complexity and balance of flavors we would experience in the dishes to come. The salad was an elegant mix of clean, delicate flavors.

The Maguro Pearls was an amazing dish! The small rice spheres are topped with fresh tuna, which is lightly seared, a creamy wasabi sauce and scallions. The tuna is prepared in a mixture of soy sauce, spicy mayo, and chili oil. It results in a beautifully well balanced and flavorful bite of tuna. This may have been my favorite dish of the night.

The Enoki  Bacon is a dish from the kushi-lava rock char boil menu. The lovely golden needle shaped mushrooms are rolled in bacon and quickly grilled. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms was nicely complimented by the salty, smokiness of the bacon. A small bite of incredible flavors!

The Tonkatsu Shiso Age is breaded pork wrapped with shiso leaves. The breading was light and the pork was nicely fried without any greasiness. The light breading nicely brought out the sweetness of the pork. It was served with a homemade tonkatsu sauce that had the traditional salty, sweet combination. It was a wonderful dish but didn’t have the complexity of flavor of the other dishes.

We also tried some sashimi which were masterfully cut and served at the perfect temperature such that the fish simply melt in your mouth. I have come to realize that the temperature at which the fish are served is a critical component in the preparation of sushi and sashimi. We also tried a couple of maki rolls to round out our meal.

We were comfortably full and unsure whether to order dessert, but we opted to share the mango pudding. It was delicious concentrated mango flavor in a smooth, light, creamy pudding. A perfect light ending!

Another wonderful aspect of dining in Chicago is that there are several restaurants which are BYOB (bring your own beverage). Kai Zan is one of these and for a $5 corkage fee you can bring your own wine. So, we were able to bring a bottle of wine from home which we knew we would enjoy and didn’t have to overpay for. The ability to enjoy our own wine was just an added bonus to the wonderful food and flavors offered at Kai Zan. We can’t wait to explore more neighborhood joints with food of this caliber!

Kai Zan
http://www.eatatkaizan.com
2557 W Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
773-278-5776

Yamazushi, Durham

I must admit, we have been lucky to enjoy some amazing meals in wonderful locals but I really didn’t expect one of the best meals of my life to be in a nondescript strip mall in Durham.

Yamazushi is located in the Woodcroft Shopping center in Durham. When you step into the restaurant you are immediately transported to restaurant in Japan. As we learnt on our trip to Japan, in traditional eateries the dining area is separated from the entry. When you walk into Yamazushi there is a narrow walkway created by a screen on your left which hides the dining area behind it. At the end of the narrow walk is a small welcoming water fountain.

As we entered, we were greeted warmly by Mayumi, the wife in the husband and wife team that run the restaurant. She immediately knew who we were as they stagger the reservations so that every guest can be welcomed and seated with personal attention. She seated us and explained the kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese muticourse dining experience which is rooted in the Buddhist culture.

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Lucha Tigre, Chapel Hill

  

Mexican-Asian fusion is not something I’ve seen before but is the concept behind Lucha Tigre. It is a new-ish place, in the old Flying Burrito space next to Flyleaf Books and Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill. The space is nice with gray walls decorated with black, white and red Lucha Libre wrestling posters. We went early, since we have the little one, and the atmosphere was causal and comfortable. We started with the Lucha Mojito which were a twist on the traditional mojito and included ginger. It was fresh and bright! I loved that it was served with a piece of sugar cane which I had to chew down!

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Dim Sum House, Morrisville

We went to Dim Sum House this past weekend on our way back from Raleigh.  Our last dim sum experience was in Boston so we were looking forward to trying this.  It was about 1pm on Saturday and the place was packed when we got there.  Not only was it packed it everyone was speaking Chinese which is always encouraging!  They had several carts making the rounds and you could order off of the menu as well.  The crowd was starting to thin out as we started so some of the carts were being refilled when we were starting to order.  We tried a variety of items off of the carts and ordered sticky rice off the menu.  The shu mai, cheong fan, shrimp dumplings, and sticky rice were wonderful!  The flavors were simple and clean.  The shrimp balls were also tasty but were a bit cold, I think they were the last batch on the cart.  The two different pork buns were new to us.  The first was small chunks of pork wrapped in something like a puff pastry with sesame seeds on top.  It was quite tasty!  The other was minced pork served in a sticky, puffy fried casing.  The pork filling was tasty but I was not a fan of the wrapping.  Finally, we also tried the pork spare ribs which were steamed and served with thin sliced jalapeños.  These were tasty but not my favorite because I didn’t enjoy working around the fatty meat.  The service was friendly and attentive.  We always enjoy dim sum and it is nice to have a good option here in the Triangle.

Dim Sum House
http://www.dimsumhouse18.com
100 Jerusalem Dr
Morrisville, NC 27560
919-380-3087

Lantern, Chapel Hill

Lantern is a restaurant which has received acclaim far beyond the Triangle area for the creative dishes of Andrea Reusing and use of local and seasonal ingredients in Asian inspired dishes.  We met some friends for dinner there a few weeks ago.  The restaurant has a nice modern, yet cozy feel to it.  The dining room is done in all black and white however this starkness is softened with large white lanterns and elegant flowers between each seating area.

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O Ya, Boston

Rarely does a restaurant live up to the hype generated by the media but in this case it certainly did.  Since being named the number one ‘Coast to Coast, Restaurants that Count’ 2008 by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, O Ya has been on my radar.  We had wanted to try it for quite sometime however, given the expense felt we needed an occasion.  We decided it would be a perfect place to celebrate our 8 years in Boston and the last night in town before we flew down south.

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