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Monday, January 20

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Bar Tue May 06 2008

Shochu: Namesake Japanese Liquor and Inventive Nibbles

Table Setting @ ShochuIt's a pretty bold move. To not only feature shochu so primarily on the drink menu, but also name the restaurant itself after the Japanese liquor, that is. Shochu, a type of distilled liquor made from things like barley, buckwheat, sweet potatoes and rice, is definitely not the most approachable of Japanese boozes. For one thing, shochu, at around 25 percent, is more alcoholic than wine and sake. The biting sharpness of alcohol is much more pronounced in shochu than in often-smooth sake. For another, shochu often has an aroma that may not be particularly appetizing to the uninitiated. Many Japanese swear by it, and many others avoid it like vermin. Still others venture into the recently rediscovered territory of shochu with ardent curiosity. Once considered a lower-class beverage, shochu has been experiencing a sort of a renaissance in Japan in recent years, with many shochu bars popping up like bamboo shoots after a rain. And that boom seems to be catching on in the U.S. as well. Shochu, a new shochu-and-small-plates bar in Lakeview, is a great place to try out some without spending thousands to cross the Pacific.

My husband and I visited Shochu a few days after its opening in late April. I'm not a big shochu drinker, so I went for a shochu-based cocktail -- "Izumi" -- made with kiwi and lemon. The sweet-sour flavor of the fruits definitely rendered the shochu quite approachable. My husband, who had tried shochu in Japan and liked it, tried a couple of different brands. The fun thing about shochu that we discovered that night was that each shochu really carries the flavor and aroma of its primary ingredient. The one made from buckwheat had the soba-like aroma and the nutty flavor that pleasantly clung to the tongue. Meanwhile, the one made from sweet potatoes had a distinctly earthy sweetness of the sweet potatoes lurking behind the tang of alcohol. Reaching, with our tongues, for the initially elusive flavors of the main ingredients was a lot of fun.

Come to think of it, a lot of the charm of Shochu is the fun of discovering the unfamiliar -- which is a considerable feat in this culinary environment so saturated with hackneyed ex-exotics. (Think of those biteless wasabi-encrusted salmons that show up everywhere.) The food menu of Shochu is filled with ingredients unfamiliar to us, as well as flavor combinations that I had never seen anywhere else. There was maitake and eggplant sesame tempura served with seven inventive sauces (like blueberry teriyaki sauce and homemade Thai chili sauce). There were five different preparations of chicken wings, ranging from habanero curry to sweet-and-salty Nagoya-style. Then there were a handful of intriguing fish tartares, like kampachi with piquillo peppers and purple potato chips(!). The culinary influences evident on the menu were quite wide-ranging, from Hawaiian to Indonesian to Japanese. It'd been a long time since I last had such fun just reading the menu at an Asian fusion restaurant.

Ono Poke with Sambal, Peanuts, etc.

Of course, it didn't end at just looking at the menu. The highlights of the eating part of our dinner was the ono poke, a Hawaiian white-meat fish mixed with sambal (an Indonesian hot sauce), peanuts, avocado and scallions. The avocados added richness to the lean ono. The unexpected use of sambal sauce and peanuts in fish tartare worked quite well (and I'm determined to try emulating it at home). Everything else we ordered were delicious, and most were very reasonably priced. (Three gigantic chicken wings in gingery marinade, for example, came for $6.)

Pomelo & Mizuna Salad

Because all of our initial choices were on the meaty and oily side, we finished off the dinner with two refreshing salads. Mizuna and pomelo with yuzu vinaigrette was the less inventive of the two, though it was perfectly fresh and enjoyable. What really surprised me was the strawberry shiso salad. A combination I would never have thought of myself, strawberry and shiso in a faintly sweet dressing were a match made in heaven (although, I must say, the wasabi avocado mayo spread beneath the salad was quite unnecessary).

Our waiter was unassuming and nice, and the minimalist decor with a few Asian accents was pleasant enough. All in all, Shochu was impressive, definitely a few notches above the swarm of the other Asian fusion restaurants in the city -- in both their inventive menu and their boldness to feature the "stinky" liquor as The Thing. It would be interesting to see how this new addition will shape the nascent shochu scene of Chicago.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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