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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

#tbt: Oriole and Omakase Yume – Chicago, IL

I have been sitting on this blog from an evening in February 2020 for a while, mostly because it seemed kinda crass and tone-deaf to post something about an exorbitant meal when so many people were struggling during the opening months pandemic. In a way, it still does.

But there's some meaningless designation that has swept the globe of Thursdays as "throwback Thursday," or "#TBT" a time to look back on something, I suppose, and February 18, 2020 is the day I enjoyed this sort of silly evening, a day which in 2021 happens to fall on...

Yep. A Thursday.

Serendipity, perhaps?

Enjoy this pinnacle of gluttony, a true first in my insane decision-making, from exactly a year ago today, if you like!

* * *

For someone with a terminal degree and interminable curiosity, I can be sorta dumb sometimes. Most prevalently, I tend to put things off until the last minute, even when I know I need to act on things quickly, and my generally indecisive nature (and rather poor memory!) makes this worse.

Planning a two-week trip with five destinations isn’t an easy task, and while I am proud of myself for actually doing the meal planning well in advance rather than trying to get reservations at places like Blue Hill or Sushi Noz the night before, it is easy for me to let certain details slip through the cracks.

For example, I decided to book two tables for the last night of my February trip, to be spent in Chicago because of the sheer expense of booking a flight straight to Iowa. I did this because I didn’t really know how much I’d have left in my trip coffers by the time I got to Chicago, so I booked one more expensive and one less expensive, with the intent of canceling one based on the results of an evaluation of my cash reserves.

Silly me, then, to have been indecisive enough to miss the cancellation deadline for BOTH restaurants, only to be facing a “no-show” charge of $100+ for either if I canceled.

Nah, I’d rather literally eat that $100 worth.

So that is how I came to eat at two places for dinner, like a Hobbit. I avoided eating all day, save for a few pita chips and Palmetto cheese at the ATL airport, and after a short hop from Atlanta and a speedy check-in at the awesome Hoxton Hotel in Fulton Market, I was ready to be ravenous.

One of the meals, fortunately, was a straight-up classic sushi omakase, without much to truly stuff me. Omakase Yume is among the slew of new, compact omakase joints in Chicago. Chef SangTae Park, another Korean sushi chef like B.K. of Mako, helms this austere little spot in the west loop, serving a 17-course, 90-minute omakase at a very affordable rate. I kept this reservation time and pushed the other one back, and made my way over to Yume hungry for sushi.

I had avoided the most obnoxious of the “sushi bros” in New York, but ‘twas not to be in Chicago. The pair of Chicago bros next to me was rather uncouth. Loud and crass talking, lots of sexist stuff about women they know, pictures with the “click” sound at full volume, even a ringer going off at one point. I was displeased. Damn it, don’t these people know that sushi is a place for me to be a complete snob without overhearing someone calling a woman “THOT?”

I’m not sure if it was the sushi bros, the cumulative exhaustion of the trip, the absolute spoiling at Sushi Noz just a week before, or the fact that I knew I’d be up late eating even more, but I just couldn’t get my head into this meal, and didn’t enjoy it as much as other recent omakase experiences. Still, the sushi was fresh and delicious, with a handful of absolutely glorious cuts.

Park-san started us with a beautiful steamed savory egg custard, chawanmushi, with chestnut, ginko nut, and shiitake. Mine was gone rather quickly, given how hungry I was!

I got to try a trick that I learned from my new friend in foodiedom, Eric, who I met at Sushi Noz: taking pictures of sushi with your camera upside-down. It makes a HUGE difference, kids!

The picture immediately below is right-side-up, and the pictures that follow are upside-down. Compare!

In order, we had:

  • Hirame (fluke) with kimchi paste (pictured above)

  • Madai (red snapper) with yuzu salt

  • Akami (lean tuna) with toro tartare atop

  • A glorious piece of chutoro (medium-fatty tuna belly––my fave Bluefin cut)

  • Otoro (fatty tuna belly) with charcoal sea salt

  • Shima aji (yellowjack)

  • Kinmedai (goldeneye snapper––one of my very favorites)

  • Sake (salmon), smoked and torched, with “unnamed sauce.” Droooooool.

  • Kanpachi (amberjack) with shiso

  • Ika (squid) beautifully scored, torched, and drizzled with lemon

  • Botan ebi (sweet shrimp)

The next thing to come out was miso-glazed grilled black cod. Absolute stunner, with sweet, barely-cooked tender flesh over rice.

The traditional miso soup was next, followed by a piece of anago. I think, however, that I am ruined for anago after my meal at Noz.

Dessert was a delicious and beautifully-composed panna cotta of matcha, with sweet red bean and whipped cream. So tasty, and actually a good palate cleanser for my impending SECOND dinner! Yikes!

Yume was definitely excellent, and I would not hesitate to go back, especially at the price point, to give it another go and see if a change in context can brighten my experience. You don’t get some premium cuts like uni unless you add them, but I didn’t need to add any extra food given my plans. The sushi technique is generally very traditional and the fish is as fresh as you could ask for. I never thought I’d say this, but I think I might be getting to the point where I PREFER Edomae-style aged fish after my dinner at Noz. The cuts at Yume were beautiful, but didn’t have near the depth of flavor of pieces served at the two Edomae joints I’ve now visited. More exploring needed (twist my arm)!

* * *

Oriole is one of Chicago’s two-starred establishments in the Michelin guide, in a city with a troubled history for joints at this level of renown. L20 also held two stars, but went under about four years ago, though I managed to sneak in during its last months. 42 Grams held two stars, and I ate at their chef’s counter a pair of times, finding the food to be at least as beautiful and inventive as just about anything I’d had in the U.S., but was so terrified of the chef, especially when he inevitably began to erupt at his sous chef in the open kitchen during BOTH meals. Turns out the temper wasn’t isolated, and the place shuttered a few months after my second visit there. Grace, a three-starred spot atop the Trump Tower (ugh), closed very suddenly when chef and owner couldn’t work out a personal disagreement. Tough town!

These days, the three places in town that sit in the two-star tier are Acadia, Oriole, and Smyth, and I'd sampled none of them. Despite hearing that Smyth is really the spot to try these days, I became more aware of Chef Noah Sandoval’s work through his collaborations with Julia Momose at Kumiko, so found Oriole to be a suitable next establishment to check off my Chicago list.

Oriole was only a short walk from Yume, so I found myself arriving a good half hour before my reservation time that I pushed back to accommodate the “appetizer” meal. Much like the rest of the Fulton Market area, it’s not really the type of setting where you’d expect to find one of the finest restaurants in the country––the entrance is in a back alley of sorts overlooking the freeway, with metal stairs leading to an old warehouse door. I checked in and had a friendly chat with the hostess, when the metal wall behind me suddenly split open, revealing a pair of departing diners leaving the dining room behind them. Turns out the waiting room is an old freight elevator, and the dining room is behind the door on the other side. Very industrial chic, and slightly terrifying (I knew the floor was moving...).

Oriole has an attractive tasting menu that doesn’t leave any of the luxuries out––you don’t have to pay supplemental charges to get caviar, truffles, etc., which is increasingly unusual and actually makes their tasting menu a hell of a bargain for a place like this. They offer a standard or reserve pairing, and I saddled up for the reserve and let the staff start me on the journey, not feeling full at all from sushi (thank goodness!)

Taittinger vintage Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) from 2007 was the Grand Cru bubbly on offer to begin the evening, this bottle named for the “Comte de Champagne” ("Count" of Champagne), a gentleman credited with bringing Chardonnay to the Champagne region. Makes sense for a Blanc de Blancs (a white bubbly made from all white wine grapes)! The age gave the chard a nice body, but I still am a sucker for the toasty heft that a good pinot-heavy Champagne offers.

It was off to the races straight away––no amuse courses, just right into the meat of the meal. First was a lovely “cake” of fluke tartare with lemon, saffron, and dill, topped with Osetra caviar. Caviar and champagne are natural companions, and the lemon was a better match for a chardonnay-focused champagne, giving the dish a bright delicate quality that the salty funk of the roe was able to just interrupt and shine through. Really beautifully composed.

I appreciated that they paired a different wine with each course rather than combining any, and was glad to see an old buddy, Pichler, make an appearance. Pichler’s wines are very popular out at CA's tasting joints these days, and Oriole is now the fifth restaurant I’ve seen pouring Pichler. This grüner Veltliner is the same permutation I drank at Atelier Crenn, on what is still probably the greatest slate of pairings I’ve had. Grüner can be very acidic and green, making a food-friendly, but otherwise uninteresting, white. This one, however, was playing an entirely different game. Tropical fruit, coconut, funk, body, held together with gripping acidity; a real showstopper.

The Pichler paired nicely with a crispy cracker layered with Ibérico jamón, the greatest in the world, complemented with black walnut, tiny dollops of blue cheese, and quince. Really lovely balance of texture from the cracker, umami from the pork, funk from the cheese, bitter from the walnut, and sweetness from the quince, this was a scrumptious little number with which the food-friendly grüner heartily agreed.

While I was certainly enjoying the meal, it was slightly alarming how quickly things were progressing. Not sure if I was eating quickly, or they were pushing things out because I had such a late reservation, but I had very little downtime between courses, and it all was feeling a bit frantic for a tasting menu.

Almost immediately, my next wine arrived. Viura forms the backbone of some of my favorite white wines in the world from Rioja in Spain, and this white Rioja, “Cacareaba,” a play on the call of the rooster and also the name of the winemaker, was a lovely expression of the grape. I appreciate a viura with a bit more age, but even at 2015, the wine exhibited depth and nuance, and worked beautifully with the subtle and manifold flavors of the next dish. As the bottle says, qué bonito!

Mushrooms are one of the grandest of the foods, aren’t they? This next dish featured a mélange of tiny brown enoki mushrooms in a tarragon-scented chicken broth with some truffle. Absolutely beautifully aromatic, with the tarragon providing the “X-factor.” Simple, delicate, and divine.

Pessac-Léognan is one of the most prized AOCs in Bordeaux, where red blends reign supreme. This was a white from the same area, consisting of the common white Bordeaux varietals of sauvignon blanc and semillon. This blend from Pape Clément, one of the oldest producers in the region, leaned toward sauv blanc, with the characteristic grassy brightness, while the semillon and age added more robust fruit character and a bit of viscous funk. Would turn out to be a perfect pairing with the next course.

This dish was brand new this evening, and might have been my favorite. It was a very traditional French preparation of butter-poached langoustine, just barely cooked with a toothsome, nearly gelatinous sweetness. The sauce, called “sauce Américain,” is a traditional creamy shellfish white wine sauce that is commonly served with lobster in French cooking. Alongside was a glorious couple bites of charred little gem lettuce. Simple yet decadent, and beautifully prepared.

I am always filled with joy when I see grand cru Burgundy approaching my table. This chardonnay from Chandon de Briailles had the characteristic body of a high-end Burgundian chardonnay, with a hint of oak and almond, balanced by a lively, nuanced character of yellow fruit and flowers. The winemaking family planted chardonnay in this vineyard that had been traditionally used for pinot, and the pinot soil gives the wine a nice spice as well.

Sablefish, or black cod, is certainly having a moment, as it seems I have black cod in a disproportionate number of meals these days. Two preparations of sablefish constituted the next course. The first was a little fried croquette, with a belly cut of the fish topped with sablefish roe and crème fraîche. The second was a preparation of the barely-cooked fish with king crab meat and a foam of rice fermented with koji, a fungus used in the production of miso and sake. Koji adds umami, and these days is a popular additive in many a chef’s repertoire, first brought to major prominence in western kitchens by David Chang of the Momofuku empire. It is also an agent in the butter provided alongside the to-die-for Japanese milk bread that accompanied this course.

If Burgundy makes me happy, Barolo makes me ecstatic––especially Barolo from 2004, one of the best vintages of the ‘aughts in the Piedmont, and at a perfect age for the feisty nebbiolo grape to mature and express its potential. As with many Italian wine families, this is a family of strong personalities, and the brother who makes these wines has some sort of gripe with the remainder of his family, and his wines as a result take on a rebellious quality, despite being rooted in tradition. Not sure of the details, but gotta love the storied history of Italian wine!

The dish paired with the Barolo is the only dish that has been on Oriole’s menu since day one: capellini pasta with Perigord truffle and puffed wheat, wrapped into a beautiful, succulent nest. I can see why they keep this dish around, and I was thrilled to see a mountain of shaved truffles added without a supplemental charge.

Yet another luxury was next: 1996 Bordeaux from Pauillac, an AOC home to some pretty famous winemaking characters. This, from Grand-Puy-Lacoste, was pretty special––at 24 years old, it is starting to show the woody, earthy, wet stone character of a Bordeaux of its age, but still has some wonderful fruit and structure, making it a nicely balanced expression of vintage Pauillac.

Luxuries upon luxuries––A5 wagyu from Miyazaki in Japan was the next thing to grace the table, served with a “dust” of shio koji (how cool-looking is that?!), a Madeira reduction, and white asparagus, one of my favorite things. Again, I so appreciate Oriole’s inclusion of such amazing ingredients at their menu price without supplements, and this spectacular cut of beef with a sweet and tangy Madeira sauce and decadent white asparagus was the perfect way to end the savory portion of the meal.

Dessert was next, first paired with another 100% chardonnay Champagne from Saint-Chamant. A brut Champagne (dry) was an interesting companion to a dessert, but it worked very nicely with what was to come: a pear and yuzu course. This is the one course that I can't remember the details of, but pear and yuzu are an absolutely bomb combo.

The next dessert, however, will be in my memory for ages to come––presented to me was a fresh-out-of-the-oven mini soufflé with black sesame, and poured into the center was melted Delice de Bourgogne cheese, one of my ABSOLUTE favorite cheeses in the world. I love a dessert that is at once sweet and salty, and the melty, salty, creamy cheese was a perfect foil to the sweet soufflé.

The ace-in-the-hole was the pairing, however: Rieussec 1990 sauternes. Classic, but not the oldest Rieussec I've had; that honor belongs to Quince in San Francisco with their '76 ;).

A selection of little bites followed, and I would certainly not be able to remember all of them, but mannnn they were delicious.

So, Oriole was amazing; each course was fantastic, the price was right, and the pairings were absolutely perfect. The thing that was sorta bananas, however, is that it took me less than NINETY MINUTES to enjoy this rather mammoth tasting menu, which is a pretty stunningly brief stretch of time for a meal this expensive. While the hotel was but two blocks away, I was in bed just over ninety minutes after I was seated. That is crazy. Am I just a really fast eater? Were they pressing me because my reservation was one of the last of the night? Who knows. But I don't like having an experience this expensive be this brief! Perhaps next time, if I am able to enjoy dinner with a dining companion, or perhaps get an earlier reservation, it will go at a more leisurely pace.

* * *

I miss the ability to commune over food, and it was a great pleasure to write this blog in a time when restaurants as glorious as these are shuttered. Please support local restaurants offering delivery when you can.

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