Griddle Great

Michael Nagrant / 01.22.20

OMG. This wine is rancid. I’m gonna die.

Server, five minutes later: How is everything?

Me (to waiter): Fantastic! Thank You!

Me (to my wife): Dude, taste this! It’s not right.

Wife: It’s definitely sour.

Me: OMG, it tastes like Champagne vinegar spiked with cat piss!

I should be able to avoid this kind of predicament.

For example, you don’t ever order the cheap wine pour, especially when it’s a $9 per glass blanc de blancs that retails for $9.99 a bottle (Jean-Louis Cuvee Brut,Charles de Fere, France).

Also, if something’s wrong at a restaurant, you don’t hold it in. You tell the staff to see how they deal with it, to ascertain the quality of service, right?

On the first count, that’s true. However, Gaijin, a Japanese-inspired restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop isn’t just any restaurant. It’s a spot run by Paul Virant, one of the true OG Chicago chefs. Virant is so boss, he has done something none of his peers have. He has been successful not only in Chicago city proper, but like Ben Folds, he has rocked the suburbs at Vie since 2004. Also, at an age when most chefs start spending all their time behind the camera or focused on a P&L sheet, Virant works the teppan grill at Gaijin with the verve of an 18-year-old line cook hopped up on grade A kombucha shots. If I can trust any wine list top to bottom, it’s probably gonna be this one.

As for the second point, I’ve already put a quick make on the likely service quality, based on the neo-Frida Kahlo-like maître ‘d clad in beige cow-print sandals, clutching a knit shawl, and working the door with the selectivity and warmth of a Studio 54 bouncer. Once we dared enter the dining room, she stares at us silently for a couple solid beats before asking “DO YOU HAVE A RESERVATION” not as a question, but more like a threat, as in “YOU BETTER HAVE A DAMN RESERVATION!”.

But, even if the service at Gaijin turns out to be great, and ultimately, it does, here’s the thing: unless you are a particular kind of person, expressing discomfort in a restaurant setting is uncomfortable. This is why the best service is anticipatory. Also, for me, to express dissatisfaction is also to court professional danger, to draw undue attention to a table when I’m trying to get a natural read on the place.

Of course, you might also contend that calling the sparkling wine out is inhospitable. It is, were I being coy, but it does finish like fizzy feline urine.

And before you ask, no, I have only smelled cat whiz.

The other thing is despite all of this, though I am pretty sure these bubbles are off, we are living in the sommelier and cicerone-age where “horseblanket” and “barnyard” and “weed-like skunk” are celebrated. Maybe it’s the winemaker’s intention. To be honest, I love the farm funk, aka Brettanomyces-yeast infected natural wines. 

But, I do not love this pour. It may once have been a fine bottle, but it tastes like it’s been sitting open for a while, oxidizing. Just as a chef continually samples sauces and finishes dishes, a bartender/sommelier should taste every thing they pour for a customer.

There is another cloud hanging over Gaijin: the question of whether Paul Virant, a white dude, should be able to serve the restaurant’s central dish of okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese custard pancake infused with nagaimo or grated yam, and cabbage, that is often mixed or layered with sweet and savory ingredients.

My friend Nick Kindelsperger already tried to address this here. However, even with good intentions, Nick gets into a bit of a sticky wicket. Who owns what? Does authenticity even exist? Nick’s chosen authenticity expert is Japanese and Chinese, raised in the Chicago suburbs, and just happens to be industry friends with Virant. Nick and his companion get a discount on their meal. How can you criticize a dude who just comped part of your meal? You can’t.  Also, who should be the ultimate authority? A native Japanese chef? A Japanese immigrant chef? At this point in our culture this topic is so important and much deeper than a review. It truly deserves a separate essay. That being said (full disclosure: I’m a white guy), as a shorthand, I generally subscribe to the idea that if you aren’t claiming to be authentic, a savior, or god’s gift to anything and you approach a cuisine with respect for the history, and give props to and partner with or defer to the culture from which the food came, and you add your own spin, you’re moving in the right direction.

Virant thus far has done that. He is not pulling an Elvis Presley-like theft of Otis Blackwell. The name of the restaurant, Gaijin, as anyone who read Michael Crichton’s fearmongering best-seller Rising Sun knows, is the Japanese word for foreigner or outsider. Virant wants you to know that although he’s studied hard, done his homework and is paying loving homage to the culture, he’s a straight up gringo, yo. Which is to say Gaijin isn’t Japanese, as much as it is classic Japanese ideas refracted through the hazy Malort-tinged Midwestern foodway-obsessed lens that has always been Virant’s.

Pork yakisoba is a tangle of glorious gluten, a noodle of delicious bounce and spring that swaddles luscious striated cubes of pig redolent with roast sesame. In Japan, the pork might be kurobuta (which, in a very germane twist, is basically pork from British Berkshire hogs), but Virant is using Slagel Family Farms pork from Fairbury, IL, a cross of grain and vegetable fed-Berkshire, Duroc and Yorkshire breeds. The meat is striated with melting glistening lard and yields to the tooth like the finest Kobe beef.

Golden veggie fritters or korokke are larded with the earthy bounty of Burlington, Wisconsin’s River Valley Ranch mushrooms. Break one open and a delicious curry perfume knocks you out. They’re accompanied by a pickled side of daikon and gem-like grape tomatoes hydroponically grown in Rochelle, IL. It is January, but the tomatoes drip with August nectar.

Though I have made scrambled eggs a million times, just this morning, I overcooked them and jumbled them with burnt bits from bacon fried previously in the same pan. This is the luxury of cooking for yourself. I have the gift of forgetting about the end product while daydreaming about whether my son will actually remember to turn in the homework we worked on together for four hours the previous night. Restaurant chefs are not this lucky.

I bring this up, because, though okonomiyaki is simple, an omelet-like egg base with a few mix-ins, so much can go wrong. Virant and his team cook eggs a thousand times an hour on an open flat top, and each okonomiyaki, at least the four I had, were cloud-like at the edges featuring a savory cream custard curd inside.

Tempura shrimp mingle with buttery kernels of sweet corn and arare, or mini Kix-cereal-like puffed rice crackers, on one okonomiyaki variant.

On another okonomiyaki, pearl nubs of octopus rest amidst floral hot sauce and a honey gastrique that waft between undulating curls of smoky bonito flake.

On another, silky braised beef floss is kissed with the mellow sweet perfume of roast garlic.

There is also negiyaki on offer, a breakfast of champions, featuring a verdant carpet of sautéed scallion, runny egg, and mahogany planks of crisp bacon.  A ponzu sidecar poured into the bottom of the bowl acts like a shot of OJ, a lifting citrus punch to wash down the whole thing.

For dessert, there is kakigori, a Yeti-friendly mountain of flavored shaved ice doused with a snow cap of sweetened condensed milk perched over a delicious ice cream center. I really dug the namesake “Gaijin”, cider-spiced ice tossed with caramelized diced apple featuring a cinnamon-gooey buttercake ice cream center. The mix of bracing sorbet-like ice, creamy rich ice cream and warming cinnamon butter is a straight up tongue porn. The only quibble here is that the dining room tables have built in flattop griddles. This is fine for the hot savory dishes, but the residual heat from the table melts the dessert a bit. Additionally, if you’re sharing dessert, you’re forced to eat awkwardly off the side of the table, because if you put the dessert in the middle on the griddle, it would melt in seconds.

The food in general at Gaijin is almost perfect. Virant and his team works at a level of consistency and thoughtfulness, that if I’m lucky, though I may dine out hundreds of times, I see maybe a few times annually. Gaijin is the kind of place I will likely hit up a bunch, especially if I’m looking for killer food in a casual tavern-style atmosphere. Despite the initial hiccups, our server turns out to be convivial, complimentary, and responsive, though he never did notice that I didn’t finish my small glass of sparkling wine. So, when I do inevitably return, I might just skip the cheap bubbles, and stick to the beer list.

Gaijin is located at 950 W. Lake St. in Chicago