Review: The Food at Chicago’s Yūgen Is Delightful but Sometimes Overwrought

Mari Katsumura was walking down West Randolph Street in Chicago’s restaurant-jammed West Loop on her way home from work and at a crossroads in her career. She was the pastry chef and savory sous chef at a forgettable restaurant called Gideon Sweet, “and I decided that it was time to move on,” she remembers.

The commute between work and her apartment took her past the grave of Grace, a restaurant ranked three stars by Michelin, which abruptly closed in late 2017 when chef Curtis Duffy walked out over an acrimonious dispute with owner Michael Olszewski. Katsumura knew both parties; she had been the opening pastry chef at Grace and worked there for three years. “[Olszewski] was conducting tastings with potential candidates” for Grace’s replacement, Katsumura says. He saw her as she passed, and they started chatting. “And then just by chance I became a candidate.”

Katsumura won the job, her first as an executive chef, and the remaining band members fell into place: from the acclaimed Smyth and the Loyalist up the street, Jeanine Lamadieu on pastry; Olivia Noren, a sommelier from Le Bernardin in New York, on beverage; and MBA Morgan Olszewski, Michael’s daughter, on general manager duties. Where once was Grace now is Yūgen, an ambitious restaurant named after the Japanese concept of awareness of the universe’s infinite beauty and mystery and our ability, as mere mortals, to comprehend it. Heady business.

Chef Mari Katsumura.

Chef Mari Katsumura.

Courtesy of Yūgen

At the restaurant, they don’t take the name super literally. “We adapted the definition to our own meaning of the harmony between food and ambiance and service, kind of bringing nature inward,” Katsumura says, noting the dark oak tabletops in lieu of Grace’s white cloths and the shaggy living wall by the glassed-in kitchen. The dining room—which has the slick, monotone good looks of a first-class airplane cabin—rebuffs these overtures. It’s not moving anyone to pen an existential poem about nature.

On the upside, the $1,000-a-pop buttercream bucket chairs inherited from Grace are crazy comfortable, which is key when you’re settling in for 10 courses ($205). (A condensed five-course menu is offered, as well, for $110.) And unlike the design, the food at Yūgen does have the ability to make your brain swell and skin prickle: a quivering Satori oyster in the sheerest tempura bodysuit; a marshmallow-like cube of sweet-pea-and-tofu soufflé floating in miso consommé of astounding clarity; pristine kanpachi sashimi flavored with lemonade-like sweetness of candied Buddha’s Hand. All elements from the opening courses, these start the meal on a strong footing.

Family Circle

Katsumura grew up in her parents’ restaurant, Yoshi’s Café, in Lakeview. Her French-trained father, Yoshi, is “widely considered the progenitor of fusion in Chicago, melding Asian ingredients with European techniques,” food writer Kevin Pang wrote in a 2011 story in the Chicago Tribune. A 1985 review of Yoshi’s in the same paper mentions dishes like grilled beef tenderloin in gingered Zinfandel sauce and cookie-crusted Japanese pear tart with raspberry puree.

In the early 1990s, Yoshi dropped much of the French pretense and added neighborhood-friendly items like crab wontons, tofu steak, and a Wagyu burger. Topped with choice of cheese, a panko-crusted fried green tomato, Asian pear jam, tomato-pickle aioli, truffle oil, and arugula, that burger was named the best in town in 2012 at the city’s annual food and wine festival. It’s still on the menu at the café, which Katsumura’s mother, Nobuko, has continued to operate after Yoshi’s passing in 2015.

Like many immigrants who get their foothold in America in the restaurant industry, her parents “did everything in their power to make sure that [their children] didn’t follow in their footsteps,” Katsumura says. She studied art—which makes sense when you behold her talent for plating—but was drawn back to the kitchen. “I would say I’ve come full circle,” which is doubly true when you consider that Katsumura’s style echoes her father’s. Only at Yūgen, the techniques are just as often Japanese as they are European, and the ingredients just as often American as they are Japanese.

When it works, man, it works. Take the pasta course, al dente agnolotti fashioned from elastic rye ramen dough and filled with mild okara, the curdlike by-product of making tofu and soy milk. Katsumura weaves these bundles into a wreath with fried and pickled mushrooms, toasted kale, and pickled huckleberries, the delicate fruit leaching deep purple swirls into the sauce, a classic beurre monté fortified with kombu oil. Or the trust fund of ramps—pickled, soubise, chimichurri-ed with yuzu, steamed in dashi—paired with a thick bar of pink A5 Wagyu glazed with green yuzu kosho. A whole fried ramp curled around the beef, its crystalline emerald frond sticking into the air like a giant dragonfly wing.

When it doesn’t work, overcrowding is to blame. It feels like Katsumura has a ferocious urge to get all her ideas onto one plate. Almost every course could do with one or two fewer components. Often it’s just because the dish doesn’t need it—why hide that pristine sashimi in the circa-2002 theatrics of liquid-nitro citrus snow?

Chawanmushi dish at Yūgen.

Chawanmushi dish at Yūgen.

Courtesy of Anthony Tahlier

Other times, the extras are active antagonists. Smoked foie gras fat and Honeycrisp apple syrup ruin the uni chawanmushi; what should be a dreamy indulgence instead eats so aggressively smoky and sweet it’s like having soft scrambled eggs drenched in barbecue sauce. Omitting the salmon roe, tamari-cured egg yolk, and/or frothy uni butter might mitigate the extreme saltiness of the crab rice that could have been lovely and comforting. I overhear a server telling a couple at the next table that the dish is inspired by Katsumura’s favorite after-school snack.

“As a Japanese family we always had a pot of rice on at all time, and I would make a small bowl of it mixed with furikake, Kewpie mayonnaise, a fried egg, and whatever protein scraps we had in the fridge,” Katsumura says. “Obviously the [restaurant version] is an elevated form using luxury ingredients and house-made condiments,” but I’d argue the original dish, faithfully re-created by a professional chef, would almost certainly be better.

Childhood Desserts for Adults

Playing cleanup crew to Wagyu and ramps, the final savory course, is not an easy gig, but Jeanine Lamadieu has a talent for pastry way beyond her 24 years. Like her boss, she mines childhood memories from her Staten Island, N.Y., upbringing. But teasing out flavors and textures from, say, a crumb-coated Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar and putting them back together into something fresh and interesting is extra tricky in the context of a Japanese-ish tasting menu that costs more than the monthly lease payment on a Hyundai Elantra.

Lamadieu is up for the challenge. The strawberry pre-dessert was a three-bite pink Zamboni, wiping clean the persistent umami and allium heat of the previous course with pulverized strawberry streusel (the inspirational popsicle’s signature crumbs), racy kefir sorbet, strawberry caramel, strawberry jus, and arugula. It possesses that floral sweetness and zingy acid that makes a strawberry perfect but is exceedingly hard to translate into a strawberry dessert.

Milk and cookies at Yūgen.

Milk and cookies at Yūgen.

Courtesy of Anthony Tahlier

A meditation on Oreos as cereal follows. Not Oreo Cereal, but Oreos bashed up in the bowl and drowned in milk, one of Lamadieu’s favorites as a kid. At Yūgen that means cocoa cookies vacuum-compressed while warm so they take on the texture of raw cookie dough; a bombe of bittersweet caramelized milk ice cream and tangy, lactic buttermilk foam; and shards of smoky meringue freckled with the charcoal-roasted green tea known as hojicha.

Lamadieu also makes the clever mignardises that accompany the check—from very good to extraordinary: brown-butter financier dusted with togarashi sugar, jasmine profiterole, gorgeous vanilla canelé, crunchy passion fruit Nutter Butter—as well as the four desserts on the à la carte menu served in Yūgen’s front lounge, Kaisho.

I wonder if Kaisho is the move here. I peek at it on the way out, and the petite izakaya looks like a place you could relax in, where the staff, unencumbered by the demands and structure of serving a formal tasting menu, might be slightly less robotic, where you could spend a little more on the excellent cocktails and thoughtful sake and wine lists, because the udon carbonara, chicken karaage with fermented shishito aioli, and black truffle takoyaki are all under $20. At the very least, I bet the Wagyu burger is really good.

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