Mako – Chicago, IL
I need sushi like I need oxygen. And, my friends, how oxygen-deprived I have been!
I pulled a "Steve" and made the decision to wait until the last minute to make a dinner reservation when I came out to Chicago in November. No big surprise, all of the best omakase places had no last-minute openings. This time around, I would not make the same mistake. I purchased well in advance my spot at Mako, a freshly-opened omakase-only restaurant, called by one prominent Chicago critic the home of a "nearly perfect" dining experience and the best sushi spot in Chicago (i.e., the midwest). Michelin decorated Mako with a star in its first year, and it will be interesting to see how far this place can go in a crowded scene of high-quality sushi in the city.
Korean-born B. K. Park is an icon of sushi in Chicago, winning acclaim at many Japanese establishments since he moved to the city from Korea. Mako, opened just in May of this year, is his true passion-project––a small, omakase-only culinary temple bringing the best sushi and prepared dishes that Chicago has to offer. There has been a groundswell of such places in Chicago recently, many of which are receiving similar accolades, but the buzz around Mako, as well as the sheer quantity of omakase bites for the price, led me to book, quite uncharacteristically, well in advance, a spot at Park's austere sushi bar, where he crafts possibly the most beautiful fish I've seen outside Tokyo.
It was a very cold Chicago evening, complete with the characteristic wind, and I found my way to the somewhat unnerving and hidden location under the EL tracks just west of the freeway. There were twelve diners just at the sushi bar for this seating, and I sat right in front of Park-San's workstation. The space is absolutely gorgeous, in a dark slate grey with gold accents and low, focused light. Chef B. K. and his counterpart, Mike, began the prep of the immaculate sushi bar just a few minutes after I was seated, and I watched mesmerized while they worked to prepare our second course, sashimi. I felt in this moment a great deal of reverence and humility, which led to introspection, which led to a bit of melancholy, still all framed within the context of wonder and excitement about the meal to come. But it made me decidedly quiet and austere, as well as a little bit shy, for the first good bit of the dinner.
Within a few minutes I had been brought a glass of Champagne to pair with the first several bites––a Laherte Frères Ultradition Brut––a chardonnay-forward blend with a lot of bright fruit and apple and just a hint of backbone and body. Refreshing and tasty, although not my favorite varietal composition in a Champagne... I tend to prefer the body and rounder mouthfeel of pinot-heavy blends. I was a bit disappointed that I had to ask to see the bottle.
The first four courses are served simultaneously. A bowl with a lid atop that doubled as a plate was brought out, and we were instructed to eat the bites in this order: akami (lean bluefin tuna) with caviar, a Japanese sweet potato served with shiso leaf, and king crab with wagyu butter, a bit of uni, miso, and a tiny potato chip. These were all good, but none blew me away––I was expecting the crab, for example, to be insanely good, and it was certainly tasty, but wasn't the flavor explosion I was anticipating.
The NEXT bite, though...
The lid was removed for me, and beneath were a couple pieces of bonito smoked in cypress, with the cypress smoke still in the bowl and wafting up as the lid was opened. Accompanied by pickled watermelon radish and baby scallion, the fish was so delicately smoked, with beautiful nuance, and the side vegetables added crunch, tang, and a bit of allium umami. Absolutely divine.
The first of several beautiful sake pairings was next from Koshi No Kanabi, which might as well be a Jedi name, called "Sai" or "Blue River." This was a very clean, unobtrusive Niigata Prefecture junmai ginjo with a measured, nuanced tropical/banana profile and some almond and hint of umami. Pristine and perfect for the sashimi course.
I think this sashimi course is the most beautiful presentation of a dish I've had in a while, if not ever. Four bright pieces of fish on a half of a bamboo branch in an asymmetrical bowl filled with river rocks. To the right of the fish was a Kusshi oyster shell with a beautiful tiny blossom and a dollop of fresh wasabi alongside. The fish were a bright and supple kinmedai (golden eye snapper), one of my favorites, a firmer and more assertive shima aji (striped jack), transparent and melt-in-your-mouth Japanese butterfish, and the crown jewel, chutoro (medium-fatty tuna belly), my favorite cut from the bluefin. All delicious, if perhaps served a bit too cold.
Things would just keep getting better, although I forgot to photograph my next sake bottle's English label! This was a more citrus and apple-driven sake with some salinity, which complemented the oyster course nicely. The most beautiful Kusshi oyster I've ever seen was served with smoked trout roe, a yuzu gelée, and a flavorful green oil, the contents of which I cannot remember. Wonderful balance of flavors––the oyster was sweet and saline, the roe funky and smoky, and the yuzu provided a citrusy-clean freshness that tied it all together. This is also when I started to become a bit more comfortable and let my guard down, and finally spoke with Chef about our favorite types of oysters.
Back to wine for the first flight of nigiri sushi. This was a white blend from Autocton in Catalonia consisting of primarily xarello and macabeo grapes. Very clean and zesty, with lots of stone fruit, and went very nicely with the assortment of more delicate nigiri bites that came next.
The first round of nigiri was just one better after the other.
- Hotate (scallop).
- Fluke with lemon sea salt.
- Buri, which is essentially a gigantic yellowtail.
The buri might have been the best nigiri bite of the night. Chef explained that its buttery tenderness comes from the fact that the fish is absolutely massive, and that it is the only fish from the yellowtail family he likes to serve because of how unique and delicious it is. This was about when I started to really chat with the party of four sitting next to me, as well as B. K., and was finally coming out of my shell a bit, enjoying the meal more and more in the process.
White Burgundy is a natural pairing with umami-heavy dishes, and Chef B. K. paired his next course with a Domaine Thibert Miranda Pouilly-Fuissé. While a shade young, the brighter green qualities of Pouilly really shone through in this wine, which wound up being perfect for the very robust flavors in the next dish.
Arctic char was presented, with perfectly crunchy torched skin, in a dark sauce that turned out to be a burnt scallion ponzu, with some bright green chives peppered atop the sauce. This was absolutely loaded with flavor. The salinity of the ponzu combined with the smoke and umami of the scallion spoke beautifully with the magnificently tender fish, while the bites of the crispy skin wound up being my favorite thing about the dish. The young and feisty Pouilly did beautifully in cleansing the palate of the intensely savory bites. Spectacular.
Could we continue to improve? Turns out, the best was still to come, and the next nigiri flight was another step in that direction. With this course, the pairings went back to sake, and a very interesting sake, at that! This junmai from Amabuki Shuzo is made from black rice, giving it more texture and a rosé-like hint of color, sort of like a skin-fermented white wine. Ripe strawberry was rounded out by heft, texture, and even a bit of funk. Really excellent.
These nigiri bites went in this order:
- Beautifully marbled New Zealand Ora King salmon (omg omg omg).
- Mackerel with a bit of negi condiment (chef's favorite because of it's more assertive flavor).
- A glorious piece of Otoro (the fattiest cut of bluefin belly).
A really REALLY weird and cool wine was next, which I honestly thought was a cider when I drank it––"Sikelè" from Cantina Marilina in Sicily, a wine that undergoes no fining or filtration and is therefore a "natural" skin-fermented white with tremendous juiciness, some tannins, funk, and salinity. Really interesting wine, and would prove to be absolutely perfect with one of the finest courses I've had the privilege to enjoy.
A small but glorious piece of squab breast and leg was placed in front of me, alongside a cup of cloudy broth. The squab was glazed in smoky soy, and was so beautifully cooked and wonderfully crisp on the outside. The broth was a squab "tea," meant to be sipped after each bite of the bird. Wrap that all together with the funky natural wine, and you have one of the simplest, most magnificent dishes and pairings I've had in a very, very long time.
Lucky for us, we still had one last round of nigiri to come.
I got into pecorino (the wine, not the cheese... but also the cheese) this summer in Italy, and it's now one of my favorite whites. This very pretty and understated pecorino, from Tenuta Cocchi Grifoni, was the pairing for the final three bites of nigiri and the hand roll. It would also be the bottle that myself and some of my new friends sitting next to me at the sushi bar would share with Chef B.K. during after-dinner beverages (more on that later!)
The first was my absolute favorite thing, Hokkaido uni, handed to me by Chef B. K. for my immediate consumption, lest the nori get chewy (hence the terrible photo!) Just perfect as usual. Following that, we had a lemony little bite of baby Japanese lobster (cool!) and, rounding it all out, A5 Kagoshima wagyu nigiri that was beautifully torched so the wagyu fat could render slightly and seep into the bite. Wow. Last but not least, a separate toro handroll was to be the final glorious savory course of the evening before transitioning into dessert.
Dessert was a piece of anago (eel) nigiri as well as a sweet and dense tamago, a puffy egg cake that is the traditional end of a sushi meal. I really really liked B. K.'s tamago––I appreciated its sweetness to help round out the narrative of the dinner, a component often missing in more traditional tamagos.
Two more sweet bites were to follow the "sushi dessert": apple, with a type of tea and anise hyssop (a type of mint), and a Japanese sweet potato with whiskey, crème diplomate (pure vanilla decadence), and genmai.
The pairings with dessert were a sweet wine from Domaine Cauhapé, "Ballet d'Octobre," a sweet white made from Manseng in Jurançon, a wine region just south of Pau in southwest France. Paired most beautifully with the apple, but also nice with the sushi dessert. The sweet potato was aptly paired with an excellent sherry, Contrabandista, an complex Amontillado blend from Valdespino. Lots of nutty, creamy quality, which complemented the rich dish, with some nice dried fruit and a hint of saline/brine, which was interesting and picked up the genmai nicely.
Perhaps the most magical thing about the evening, if the meal can be topped, was the opportunity to go out to get drinks with my new friends and dining companions at the Hoxton down the street, complete with a jazz combo performing Christmas classics, and being joined by Chef B. K. about an hour later. So fascinating to speak with him; he exudes passion, yet humility, and most strikingly spoke about the difference between "cooking" and "care," saying that each stage of preparing food needs focus and care to make each bite special.
Mako is one of the top meals of the year, bar none, and one of the finest sushi meals I have had. Less "traditional" than the omakase at Kashiba in Seattle, but just as fantastic in the quality of the ingredients and the magnificent hospitality. The fish was beautifully prepared and, indeed, treated with care and passion. I will certainly be back, and hopefully not too long from now.
Check out my review of two of the most fantastic bars in Chicago, coming on Sunday night. Then, the last post of the year comes on NYE: The 2019 Big Drunk Gay awards! You won't want to miss them! :D