Sashimi moriawase at Kabocha Japanese Brasserie (Sara Mays/For RedEye )
Review: Kabocha Japanese Brasserie
952 W. Lake St. 312-666-6214
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of four) Heating up
Chef Shin Thompson's former restaurant, Bonsoiree in Logan Square, was a darling of the foodie crowd. It also demanded a commitment, both in time and price, to sit down for a multi-course, multi-hour meal. When he teamed up with Ryan O'Donnell (Gemini Bistro, Rustic House) to open Kabocha in the West Loop, they decided to loosen up a bit.
"I wanted to make it more fun for people," Thompson said. "It's designed to be very flexible in how you choose to eat your meal." That means you can just as easily snack on duck potstickers with a beer at the bar as share a mess of plates with friends, or even opt for a full three-course meal.
As a nod to Thompson's Japanese roots and classic French training at Kendall College (where he and O'Donnell were classmates), they're calling Kabocha a "Japanese brasserie." Though "brasserie" usually is used to describe a laid-back, lively French restaurant, it evoked the kind of vibe they were going for. Now that Kabocha is open after more than a year of prep, let's talk about why you might want to go.
You heard Joakim Noah parties there
There's a hilarious photo of Bulls center Joakim Noah towering over Shin Thompson that Kabocha asked its followers to caption on Twitter. It was taken at a private charity event the restaurant hosted for his foundation, Noah's Arc, which dusted up plenty of pre-opening buzz. (The winning caption was "My shin is almost as tall as your Shin.") Though there's a long underlit bar for cocktailing, the dining room set off by shoji screen-inspired dividers is clearly the focus.
You really like that hippie tea stuff
I'm sure I'm not the only one who keeps accidentally calling the restaurant Kombucha—you know, that fermented tea that health nuts swear by—instead of Kabocha, which is actualy a variety of Japanese squash with some personal significance to Thompson (see sidebar). Though I didn't see kombucha anywhere on the menu, there are plenty of cocktails using Asian flavors to stoke your appetite for what's to come, whether it's the summery Cucumber Rice Cooler ($13) made with shochu, gin, cuke juice and lemongrass-wild rose tea syrup or the Sour Plum ($12), a shochu-yuzu-plum wine concoction garnished with umeboshi, a pickled plum with a salty-sour punch. There are also a handful of sakes by the glass and bottle, Japanese whiskey and some unique beers such as Kurofune porter ($9) from Japan's Baird Brewing Company on draft.
You've already done all the sushi bars
The first thing you'll see walking in is the sushi bar. Though Kabocha definitely is not a straight-up sushi spot, there is plenty to love for raw fish fans who have tired of other sceney sushi spots. The "raw" section of the menu features the most sushi-like dishes, such as the tuna and hamachi mosaic ($13). It's made from diced fish that, thanks to some Cryovac wizardry, Thompson transforms into a thin-as-carpaccio sheet, with the translucent hues resembling a glass mosaic. Bits of smoky bacon and briney pickled shallot add richness and tang to the clean flavors of the fish. The sushi moriawase is Thompson's blank canvas to showcase the day's freshest fish with fun accompaniments; think kampachi sprinkled with strawberry-wasabi powder or sea bass with chili paste-spiced Asian pear sauce. Don't let the fact that it's market price scare you; the average opening week price has been $36 and there's enough to share with friends. I do wish I'd dined with a bigger crew to have the excuse to order the shellfish aquarium—a picturesque take on a traditional seafood tower that you've seen all over the internet by now—which was just too much food (and at $85, too much cash) for a table of two.
You used to love Bonsoiree
Thompson and O'Donnell know a fan favorite when they see one, and for Bonsoiree, it was Thompson's scallop and crab motoyaki, a duo of sashimi-grade scallop and king crab coated with ponzu aioli served in a begging-to-be-Instagrammed scallop shell. It's back on the menu here, tempting with a salty, sweet richness that will make you want to devour a dozen more. (The only thing stopping you from actually doing that might be the $10 price for just a few bites.) Those looking for more of a blowout experience, the restaurant is now accepting reservations for Thompson's tasting menu ($110), served at a special kitchen-adjacent table for two starting. (Call 312-666-6214 or email Malory Scordato at email@example.com.)