The dining area at Sumi Robata Bar. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Review: Sumi Robata Bar
702 N. Wells St. 312-988-7864
Rating: 3 (out of 4) Off to a good start
Ten years ago, all eyes were on chef Gene Kato when he and his business partners opened a massive, opulent riverfront restaurant on the edge of River North. You might have heard of it: It's called Japonais.
Kato remembers serving 700 to 900 people on weekend nights. “To do that kind of volume is unreal,” he said. While the restaurant became known for celeb-spotting, Kato was praised for his prowess preparing both impeccable sushi and contemporary cooked dishes.
Japonais added locations in New York and Las Vegas, the latter of which needed a touch more drama. “There needs to be a show for everything [in Vegas],” Kato said. The solution was a robata grill, a Japanese-style barbecue that uses smoke from fragrant white oak charcoal to flavor meat, seafood and veggies. It was then that he first thought of opening his own restaurant focused on robata.
This winter, Kato did just that with the debut of Sumi Robata Bar. With just 35 seats and a minimalist look, Sumi (“charcoal” in Japanese) couldn't be more different than the flashy spectacle that is Japonais. Wondering how Kato would fare in such a different setting, I stopped in to warm myself near the grill on an especially icy night.
Prepare to order a lot
For two people, my server recommended two to three appetizers to share plus five robata items each.
Because it was too tough to choose from the lineup of more than 20 hot and cold apps, we opted for more apps and less robata. Kato said he avoided rich ramen, tempura and rice-heavy dishes so that diners could have room to try a lot of different dishes; his only noodle dish, for example, is a restrained portion of chilled udon with soy dashi and ginger salad ($10). The upside is that all the flavors are light and clean—even the fried chicken ($8), is airy as a feather, brightened with a squeeze of lemon—which plays well with the robata-grilled meats and seafood. The downside is that without a lot of carbs to fill you up, is it will take more dishes (and more cash) to satisfy big eaters.
Expect a little dinner deja vu
If you think the slices of New York strip steak sizzling atop a hot stone at the next table look familiar, you're right. That's the ishi yaki ($12) a signature dish that Kato served at Japonais, and before that at Ohba, a restaurant and sake lounge in Wicker Park. Back then, Kato said he remembers being criticized for making customers cook for themselves. We didn't see anyone complaining; however, the dining room does get smoky when more than one table orders it at the same time.
But this isn't a mini-Japonais
Though Kato brought one signature dish with him, there's plenty of originality here. Maguro ($12) takes the pleasing combo of raw tuna and avocado that's so often found at sushi bars in maki and tartare and turns up the volume by adding yuzu juice, white soy and crunchy fried shallots. From the robata grill, smokily delicious head-on shrimp ($5) impressed more than textbook teriyaki salmon ($7). To preserve its juiciness, Kato grills wagyu ribeye in one big chunk instead of slicing and skewering it. At $12, it's two to three times more than some of the other robata items, but it was one of my favorite bites of the night. For dessert, “no-crust apple pie” ($6) sounded fun. As it turns out, fishing slippery caramel-coated apples out of a cellophane pouch with a tiny wooden spoon was not so fun after all.
The slider lives on, even here
“Everyone who orders one usually orders two,” my server said of the beef tsukune slider, a miso mustard-dressed link of ground beef in a bao-like bun that looks like a miniature hot dog. At $4 a pop, it's a more filling option to counter pricier picks such as king crab ($16) and that amazing ribeye.
Consider the sake
At other Japanese restaurants, the sake selection is so vast (I'm talking to you, Roka Akor, and your book-sized menu) that I don't even bother. Sumi makes ordering sake approachable with only a dozen or so bottles split into categories such as “bold and rich” and “aromatic.” If cocktails are your thing, consider bottled drinks ($12) such as The Sad Flute, a mix of bourbon, ginger, grapefruit and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. The idea to bottle cocktails arose out of necessity—there's no room for a service bar upstairs, Kato said, so these drinks are made in advance and stored—but the advantage is that they arrive at your table lighting-fast.