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Review Mon Sep 20 2010

West Town Sushi: Arami

Arami EntryI've always been wary of restaurant hype. Like going to see the summer movie everyone's been buzzing about, I find lower expectations (or ideally, a lack of expectations) tend to enhance my final enjoyment -- as with the "Going the Distance," for example. Rarely, the hype turns out to be warranted -- the food (or characterization) really is as good as you keep overhearing, and the expectant excitement of your fellow diners or audience members only seems to sharpen your own experience, magnifying everything you feel and mirroring it on the faces of everyone else in the room. Like "Inception." Or better yet, since I'm not a movie critic, like new West Town sushi and izakaya joint Arami.

Two trips in two weeks and the full effect of what is unquestionably the best sushi in the West Town area (and yes, I'm including both Coast and Mirai in that estimation) has yet to fade into the dissatisfied haze of a fleeting fad. Even upon reflection, it seriously is that good. Let's move on to some spoilers...

Sushi BarWalking into Arami is not unlike walking into a Japanese terrarium. I would imagine, anyway... Through the red-orange torii gate that's stood sentinel over the doorway for months (no more torturous self-questioning, "what does it meeeeean??" as you roll by on your way to El Taco Veloz), past the stone and moss window dressings, you enter the sudden bloom of brightness surrounding the high-ceiling sushi bar, and then the darker dining room, punctuated by skylights and back windows, a riot of backyard greenery illuminated just on the other side of the glass. Everything is cool, smooth, earthy and airy at once, a deceptively simple foil for the food itself.

Dining RoomArami owners Ty and Troy Fujimura of Small Bar have taken a page from the bar management handbook and gone out of their way to hire the most attractive waitstaff they could find. I'm looking at you here, plaid-shirted beautiful host man. Helloooo, and good evening to you as well! But the management also makes these well-designed humans actually work, reciting the daily specials, explaining the mechanics of the sushi bar, suggesting the optimal order in which to enjoy the bounty you've ordered. They're quick with the water pitcher or to return a wood-backed menu. They turn almost as one from every corner of the restaurant to welcome you or wish you a good night. And did I mention how darn pretty they are?

The prettiness continues to the food itself, which is comes to the table so artfully arranged that it almost wouldn't matter what it actually tasted like. Palm fronds and tropical-looking blossoms adorn appetizer plates, each soy sauce well is pre-set with a smooth black stone (although it's not clear if that should stay in or be removed before you pour in the soy...), and dishes are as likely to arrive on wood or shale planks as on gleaming white plates. As seems to be the trend with Japanese restaurants these days, Arami focuses not solely on sushi, but also on a variety of rice-bowls, ramen, and other entree items that don't come rolled in rice or seaweed, but the attention to decorative detail and presentation are pervasive throughout the menu. Appetizers like the togorashi seared tuna, or uni shooter, arrive photo-ready -- and only improve when eaten.

Uni Shooter - BeforeI think Arami's foundational success in all its food has something to do with texture, though the balance of flavor is a close second. Togorashi seared tuna ($10 for about 6 pieces), to start at the top of the menu, could be a good entry point for the sushi skeptic -- the difference between the seared edge and raw center of the fish is so imperceptible, cooked simply melts into uncooked, aided by the hollow-feeling crunch that seaweed seems uniquely able to deliver, the salad dressed here in a soft, meyer lemon sauce that manages to be creamy and buttery tasting without feeling greasy or overpowering the delicate fish. (This is also due in no small part, to the freshness of the product.) The uni shooter ($5, built for one slurp) is sort of the opposite sensation -- it's all liquid and softness, "special" soy sauce and a lump of sea urchin, which I'm now officially classifying as the seafood analog to fois gras. The flavor could stand on it's own two feet, nothing watery about it -- unctuousness and the brightness of salty tiny roe, underscored by a subtle heat. As I stated at the table, I could eat one hundred of these. I think I might eat one hundred of these...

Sake mussels and mushroom saladOther menu standouts pull from a range of Japanese cooking techniques. Two takes on shellfish, the sake mussels and oyster katsu don, could not be more different, and are exemplary of how not to over-season and bury the flavor of a mollusk. Sake mussels look just like you would expect them to at any other gastropub in the city: black cast-iron crock, mound of shells, clear, unassuming broth. Where other mussel dishes can drown in an overpowering broth, however, Arami's shine in a spotlight fully trained on their essential flavor as mussels. That weird, briny-gamy flavor is perfectly accented by the deep bass notes of sake, with its starchy taste and expansive mouth-feel. Oyster katsu don similarly could have become the soggy, deep-fried nightmare of a lesser restaurant -- but here, a crunchy but light breading seems only forms a shell for the ocean taste of the oyster, which bursts upon first bite, into all it's salty-meaty wonder, tasting and smelling like the beach on a windy day (and not the Lake Michigan beach -- no fishy or other questionable flavors here). Sweetly seasoned rice and whisker-thin carrots dressed with a bright vinaigrette round out the bowl.

And then, finally, there's the sushi.
Unagi Roll
If Arami's two greatest accomplishments in it's food are texture and flavor, its sushi is an exercise in equal measure of both. The unagi maguro roll ($13 for 8 pieces, which feels pretty industry-standard), with it's filling of eel, light cream cheese (unclear whether that means a light amount, or low-cal) and special soy and topping of spicy tuna, has some sort of amazing crunchiness to it (micro-greens? seaweed? gah!) that feels so organic -- not at all like that limp or sandy "crunch" that tempura rolls so often under-deliver. The maguro geungkang special nigiri ($9 for two pieces), tuna embraced by a fresh king crab coating, literally manages to melt on your tongue, all sweetness and sea saltiness. I've never had fresh crab in a sushi restaurant before -- if your typical California roll were made like this, it would start a revolution. The hamachi maguro ebi roll manages to introduce a pico de gallo-style of tomato-based chopped vegetable mix that doesn't feel contrived or dissonant with the rest of the roll, yellow tail, tuna, scallion, jalapeno and shrimp.

By the time you get to the lychee gelato for dessert, you've been converted. True to it's stated goals to create "un-Americanized" Japanese food, Arami manages to bring contemporary cuisine (meyer lemons, truffle oil, sake-scented broth) into perfect harmony with Japanese ingredients at their most elemental and simply stated (sea urchin roe in liquid, sticky rice, firm and fresh fish). New enough not to yet have a fully functional website, Arami's online presence does include the only tools you'll really need to jump on the bandwagon: address, phone number, and an Open Table reservation link. And to balance themselves with modern technology, they have a Twitter feed as well!

1829 W. Chicago Avenue

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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...
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