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Restaurants & Bars 7

Yoshi's--VERY long

Gypsy Boy | Oct 5, 200310:42 PM

I have spent more than a few hours this weekend working on this. I know it is very long. That is partly out of a desire to be as complete as possible and partly out of trying to be as fair as possible. What follows in not particularly complimentary and, for that reason alone, meant careful review and revision. I stand by everything I write here, though I recognize (and expect) that people will differ. I am routinely grateful for the information and tips I find on chowhound and so, appreciating the many things I have taken from this board, feel it only proper to be as careful and honest as I can in reporting one person's (well, two, really) experience.

On to Yoshi's, which the LDC (lovely dining companion) and I visited on Friday evening. I did not enjoy the dinner and won't be returning. It is not incidental and also worth reporting that, as to this conclusion, LDC disagrees and would return. I have tried to be as honest as I can be. I write none of this to offend or insult. We just didn't have a dinner of the caliber we expected--and believe we had a right to expect. It was not, as my comments make clear, a dinner without high points. But the number of things that seemed off was simply too great for me to reach any other conclusion.

Note: perhaps because of the Cubs' home game on Friday, we were more than a little surprised at the sparse turnout at the restaurant. We started at seven o'clock and were among only a handful of tables with people (perhaps ten out of two large rooms). When we left around 8:30 or so, there were more tables filled but still less than half the place. Is there that much of an overlap between Cubs fans and Yoshi patrons? I'm impressed!

We arrived a bit early for our reservation courtesy of a cab driver intent on displaying just how fast one could careen down side streets. Grateful to have arrived with our lives intact, we lurched into the restaurant. Despite years of wishin' and hopin', I had somehow never managed to visit Yoshi's. So this was a first for us both. We were greeted and taken immediately to a booth (we chose a booth over a table). As it happens, we were seated along the west wall (running along Halsted). In retrospect, not a wise choice. The street lamps are exceptionally bright and passing pedestrians and fire engines made it a bit less than totally desirable as a location. Not intrusive enough to ask for a change--which I am sure would have been happily granted, at least that evening--but significant enough that it arose as a conversation topic. (Sometimes the LDC and I can make conversation out of the flimsiest threads.)

We were handed oversized sheets of paper (11x17, for the terminally curious). And here, I confess, the evening took the first of a number of "detours." Not major, but a detour nonetheless. I have several complaints about the menu itself. Not what's on it (I'll get to that) but how it is actually presented. First, the font could be larger, as in easier to read (No, I'm not an old geezer unable to see, either). Second, someone who is familiar with design should be consulted. We managed to overlook some things at first simply because of the way they were shoe-horned into the menu. Third, it seems as if someone took dictation from Yoshi and then set his dictation into type without bothering to clean up the order or syntax. More than a few descriptions, though accurate, make for stilted and occasionally confusing reading. The single page is also too crowded. It, contains the entire menu (including dessert) as well as a little happy face referring to a children's menu, "advertisements" (for lack of a better word) for gift certificates, the private party room, and Sunday brunch, and even a list of beverages (except for a separate wine list). At the very least, someone should advise Yoshi about the merits of well thought out design and he should consider relegating some of the voluminous information to the other side of the page.

Shortly after settling into the booth we were served Yoshi's amuse bouche: a plastic cup (!) about one-third filled with soba (buckwheat noodles) in a nearly flavorless broth with a few slices of tomato and cucumber. It was served, as is traditional in Japan (according to LDC) with a sliver of ice to keep it cold. A rogue slice or two of scallion. Pleasant but with little taste. A pick-me-up on a summer's day, no doubt, but a little off-base on a cold, wet autumn evening.

The October menu includes five appetizers ($5.95 to $9.00), one (!) soup ($5.00), and four salads ($3.95 to $7.95). The separate sheet listing the specials included one additional appetizer and two entrees. The appetizers ran the gamut from duck liver mousse pate to a "spicy tuna roll with sour cream American sturgeon caviar" (see what I mean about the syntax?). I opted for the goat cheese spring roll (containing chicken, mushroom, and goat cheese) and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) pot stickers with white truffle oil. The presentation was lovely, especially the flower, and the tastes wonderful. The spring roll was, sadly, quite small, but there were five good-size pot stickers in an unidentified sauce that were excellent. LDC chose a simple but elegant salad: arugula, Japanese pear sliced very thin, and parmesan cheese with balsamic vinegar and oil. She was exceedingly pleased with the flavors and presentation but observed--correctly, I think--that it would have been nice if the oil and vinegar were mixed and the salad dressed. It's well-nigh impossible to effectively mix balsamic and oil at the table in any convincing fashion and then dress and toss your own salad.

Yoshi's dinner choices were, to my mind, both off-beat and disappointing. Eight choices plus two specials. Three were variations on standards for the un-adventurous (roast chicken with tarragon and lemon jus), lamb chops (with mint, sage mustard, and Japanese burdock and ratatouille nicoise), and steak au poivre. Two vegetarian-leaning entrees: a grilled tofu and vegetable napoleon and grilled fresh veggies and chicken breast. Then, what amounted to tempura (shrimp, cod, and artichoke "beignets"), a "Tai-style" (they obviously didn't take the time to proofread) spicy fish soup, and a tea-smoked duck breast with port wine sauce. Prices ranged from $12.95 to $23.95 (unless you wanted a 16 oz. steak at $31.95). The specials surprised me then and surprise me now: a Wagyu beef hamburger and a Wagyu steak. I didn't note the prices except that they were, as expected, astronomical. I think the steak was $50. That's it. To say that I was disappointed at the specials would be great understatement. Two entrée specials, both beef (which, I should add, I love). Neither showing the least inventiveness or creativity. I imagine (hope?) that they would have been done beautifully…but c'mon! a burger and a steak? Is that the best Yoshi can do for specials? And if they're not the best, why are they on the menu? I was disappointed as was LDC.

In the end, one of us made a great choice and I wasn't the one. The shrimp, codfish, and artichoke "beignets" were each well-coated in a remarkably light batter and fried a la tempura. The portion size was generous. Yoshi provided two dipping sauces and here, I am afraid, is where the meal went offtrack. A citrus ponzu and a honey mustard mayo. The former was too strong and the latter, frankly boring. Except for the superb batter, the entrée was, to my mind, a bust. The only creativity here was the name. I would find these or similar sauces at any of a number of far less ambitious places and am at a loss to explain it. The citrus sauce had power but no finesse, no subtlety, no interest. It was just too strong. The honey mustard mayo was fine but it was, after all, honey mustard mayo.

Why then, you ask, did I order this dish? Because I expected more. I knew what the menu said but this is, after all, Yoshi's. I expected him to do something unexpected, something original, something out of the ordinary, notwithstanding the literal description on the menu. Instead, I got exactly what the menu promised with nothing else. With all due respect--and I have great respect for his reputation and his accomplishments elsewhere--this dish could have been made just as well at lots of other less ambitious, less high-quality places. There was nothing (save the already-noted batter) that distinguished it. I was seriously disappointed.

I might note that I chose to accompany my dinner with a sake. I found the list of wines by the glass surprisingly inadequate. (LDC does not drink alcohol.) There were perhaps half a dozen whites and the same number of reds. Nothing particularly exciting and nothing at all that looked like a match for my dinner. So I opted to spend $15 on a glass of sake which came in its own branded cube-shaped wooden "bowl." The Japanese (not Japanese-American) waiter carefully explained to me the intricacies of how to drink it properly, complete with salt (in a little mound). Excellent.

The LDC chose the wonderfully executed Thai fish soup. It came in a large bowl complete with stalk of lemongrass. There was cod, shrimp, and a generous portion of mussels. And the broth was superb. A clear note of saffron. Spicy without being too hot. Immensely flavorful and rich. More than the LDC could finish and so I got a special bonus for lunch the next day. Excellent, no ifs, ands, or other remarks.

Dessert selections are abundant. Four kinds of cheese plates (mentioned but not even explained on the menu), four chocolate-based choices, three ice creams (green tea, vanilla, and chocolate), a poached pear, and green tea yogurt mousse. We chose the last two.

LDC's mousse was a bust. To begin with, it had the consistency of yogurt, not mousse. I was shocked, amazed, and hilariously entertained to hear my LDC exclaim after her first bite, before she could stop herself, "Yuck!" Being a serious yogurt eater, I tried it. I eat only plain yogurt (I distrust and dislike fruit yogurts) precisely because I like its tart, sour flavor. This was nearly that. There was a suggestion of green tea flavor but let's face it, green tea and yogurt would not seem to be the wisest combination of flavors--the sourness simply overpowers everything else. You wouldn't expect it to work and it didn't.

My poached pear, on the other hand, was all I expected. Perfectly poached, stuffed with a lightly flavored mascarpone, the whole surrounded by an intensely flavored dark chocolate sauce. Very well-done.

Dinner for two, $92 (before the tip, including my $15 bowl of sake.) Reasonably priced certainly. But a significant disappointment. I think there are several reasons for that. First, the restaurant is clearly a neighborhood fixture and the patrons come in accordingly. Frankly, this was one of the biggest shocks. We were among a very small minority NOT in jeans, sweatshirts or tee-shirts. I'm sorry but that just doesn't work for me in a place that, at least culinarily, aspires to very high quality. I honestly believe that people owe the restaurant (to say nothing of the chef and staff) more respect--how much effort is it to put on nice slacks? I'm not talking a tie--and I was amazed both that they dressed this way AND that Yoshi doesn't care. Yes, it's his place and he can do what he wants. I guess the bottom line is that this kind of attitude, while interpretable as a laissez faire attitude by some, strikes me as his statement that he doesn't have that much respect for what he's doing himself.

(I expect this sentiment to draw a lot of flak, but that's what I honestly believe. Respect is earned, yes. But it also comes more readily if I believe that you have respect for yourself and what you're doing as well. And letting folks in wearing jeans and tee-shirts is just wrong at a place like this.)

Second, (and, to be honest, LDC and I left with different impressions.) I found the place just a bit too…sterile. Not cozy and warm, like a neighborhood place would be. Why was that? I'm not sure I can explain it clearly. The staff did and said the right things…they just didn't seem to have their hearts in it. I think Yoshi's own stroll past our table encapsulated it for me: he asked the right question and paid attention for precisely, exactly the right number of seconds. But he didn't seem to hear or care to hear the answer. I half expected that he would have said, "Thank you, thank you" and kept moving even if I had said "Well, I was disappointed." He asked but he wasn't listening.

Third, the selection. I refer here to the selection of entrees as well as to the disappointing "specials." Some of the food was excellent. But too many little things added up. Together they signified a chef out of touch. Cold soba is not refreshing on a cold, rainy night. Even if it were, the broth was well-nigh tasteless. Neither of the dipping sauces for my beignets showed much imagination and neither was done terribly well. The green tea yogurt mousse was just flat-out wrong. Not a mousse and not the right pairing of flavors.

Finally--and I realize that it is unfair to penalize the restaurant for this--my expectations. I have lived in Chicago for 17 years now and have been hearing things about Yoshi and his cooking for a long time. I never somehow managed to make it to wherever he was before this. And so, perhaps, as time passed, his reputation became so great in my mind that no one could have lived up to my expectations. Possible. But I don't think so. I don't think my hopes were unreasonable.

Maybe Yoshi's esthetic and mine simply don't mesh. Fair enough. He's not to be blamed for that. But I do think he is responsible for the little things I've just that didn't work. And there were too many of them for me.

I imagine, as I said at the top, that I will get some response from Yoshi's champions. That's fine. I have no problem with disagreement and am pleased that Yoshi's satisfies the desires of others. But I have to report, and this write-up was as candid and honest as I can be, that I won't be going back.

Gypsy Boy

3257 N. Halsted
(773) 248-6160

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