The Work

Michael Nagrant / 03.07.19

It’s not the big things. 

It’s the thousand trivial cuts that erode the soul. However, parsing woes, unless you are Larry David, has never gotten anyone anywhere. The only choice is to push through, to do the work.

If you don’t do it, it is certain that nothing will happen. If you do the work, nothing may also happen. But, the only chance at momentum is finally putting an object in motion.

When many of us do the work, we finally find happiness. But, we often don’t know what to do with it. The daily trespasses take such a part and consume us, that when a light does shine, either from confusion, exhaustion, or guilt, we turn away.

While I am talking to you, dear reader, I am also very much speaking to myself. Today marks a year since I have become a truly freelance food critic. It has often been exhilarating, freeing, and an opiate for my addiction to writing. This time has also sometimes been, as it always has, freelance or fully-employed, a slog.

This has been a winter of discontent in Chicago. Not only because of the possibility of life-threatening frostbite, but, because for the second year in a row, our restaurant scene, at least the high-end one, has been miserable. Were this a year ago, I, a fully budgeted and reimbursed critic, would shrug and then move to the next paid for disaster. But, this year, as a free agent critic, these slights tap my wallet and psyche more than they ever have.

In the last few months, you’ve heard the woeful tales of Yugen and Kyoten. There have been others, but these two did the most damage to my bank account. If it’s true that you should never do something you’re good at for free, there is an even more veracious corollary: you should not pay for the privilege, especially if it is making you miserable.

Then I ate at Kumiko.

It was so good that I did something I have never done before. In the middle of the meal, I whipped out my phone and made a reservation to return. I go back to restaurants all the time, but I’ve never been compelled to find the next available opening mid-chew.

Now you know how I feel about Kumiko. I could stop here. Like I said, I’ve been so busted up lately, I just didn’t feel like writing much, even about a great thing.

But, Julia Momose (GreenRiver), Cara and Noah Sandoval, and their chef de cuisine Mariya Russell (Oriole) deserve more than that.

Momose led the bar program at Danny Meyer’s short-lived GreenRiver. At GreenRiver, the cocktail list was about the same size as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Unlike Ulysses, somehow every page, and every drink I tried was coherent and intuitive.

At Kumiko, Momose curates a much shorter list. She not only tends bar. She is the creative director. This is her show. Everything at Kumiko, whether borne of experience or experimentation, is a deliberate intensive distillation. 

I walk in and the staff is very insistent that I check my coat. I generally like to hold on to mine (if the place sucks, it’s easier to make a quick getaway – I kid!) but Kumiko’s dining room is so clean, trust me, you don’t want to mar the vista with your lumpy goose down. 

While I wait for my table, I’m plied with a small tumbler of hot cinnamon agave mango tea, a charitable bit of hospitality that makes me feel like I’ve entered a best friend’s dinner party.

The hundred-year-old wood floors are sanded, but only lightly, so that the hard-won history of the old building shines through the carefully chosen stain.

Most backbars are a glinting kaleidoscope, an unabridged hodgepodge curiosity shop of layabout liquor bottles. Kumiko’s backbar is a focused offering of Japanese whiskey, shochu, sake, and specialty liqueurs. Lined up like a military battalion, there is not a hair of misalignment amongst the bottles. On some shelves the tall bottles descend toward the short bottles and the two types, like mean girls and nerds, do not mix. But, on other shelves, just as I discern a pattern, a squat bottle is thrown in amongst a whole group of lithe swan-necked bottles. I may be reading in to this too much, but there is an arresting visual mix of symmetry and asymmetry to the arrangement that doesn’t feel random.

Instead of a gaping hole or pass affording a jarring view of the bustling kitchen, there are blonde panels featuring woodcut starbursts embedded in to the middle of the backbar. When the light is low, they act as a scrim, casting a hazy golden glow over the live-edge bar top. The panels recall the fabric that separates you from the priest in a Catholic confessional.

This is apt, because Kumiko is a church, a temple of service, the kind that anticipates your needs before you ever knew you had them. This is the kind of help I expected at the ultra-expensive Yugen, but never got. The service at Kumiko, while intent, is not fussy or servile.

Too many folks in pursuit of good restaurant service, act like bad real estate agents. Once, before I closed on a condo, I noticed the contractor had installed the fridge so the door bumped in to the countertop and wouldn’t open completely. I looked at my real estate agent and said, what do you think about this?  Even though I was obviously horrified, she turned the question back on me and said “Well, what do you think about it?”, hoping I’d just live with the error and she could close the deal.   

This does not happen at Kumiko. On my first visit, I ordered a la carte in the main dining room. My server listened intently and nodded his head. When I made my dessert choice, he scrunched his lips and narrowed his eyes. He said, “Last week I came in here on my day off to eat, and I told my friend, I am getting my own Japanese milk bread. It’s too good not to have your own. I suggest you guys [me and my wife] order two, because neither of you are going to want to share.” He was not wrong.

But, we’ll get to that.

The a la carte menu only has eight choices. If you are hungry, you should order all of them. Which is to say, every dish, developed by Mariya Russell and Noah Sandoval is perfect, and also, in many cases, as intricate and worthy of the Michelin two-star offering at their sister restaurant Oriole. It’s been a month since I had them, but a couple days ago I had a dream about the prawns. Encased in a sweet glassy-sheened, crisp, tempura crust, they are dotted with funky creamy (shrimp) “head” aioli, and a copse of micro-mint. A bite, and the crackle gives way to a harmonious burst of sugar, brine, citrus and cream.

It’s a Jordan vs Lebron-type competition as to whether pork belly or beef short ribs appear on more American restaurant menus. At Kumiko, they don’t take sides, offering up both. The former is served haute-David Chang-style. Silky Berkshire piggy planks sidle up to spicy tangy pickles and a bouquet of herbs inside the confines of dumpling Snuggie. 

There is no question that the latter, aka the short rib, is G.O.A.T.  It is served on a dark wooden circular tray, the kind of serveware you might take family meal from on a hippie commune. The tray is outfitted with the beef, pickled veg, a bowl of furikake (so much fun to say, “furry-cock-ay”) seasoning, puffed tendon cracker, and beef fat hollandaise dip. While all the accoutrement is great, the beef, braised with pickled plum, is supremely luscious, and eats more like the tail of a filet mignon than shards of pot roast.

While mowing down, I sipped on the “Bitter Trade” cocktail, a mix of Kintaro roasted barley shochu, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico, Koval cranberry gin and Valdespino ‘Contrabandista’ sherry. Bitter, bright, and astringent, it was a beautiful bridge between the pork bun and short rib courses.

For dessert, the milk bread, a warm, sweet crunchy raft draped in truffle shavings, Japan’s definitively superior answer to French toast, coddled a quenelle of fermented honey ice cream. The savory funk against the sweet of the honey and the heft of the milk bread was Sunday morning breakfast bliss. Our server was right. We needed four more orders. Thankfully, after a couple bites of the short rib, I had already made the reservation for the omakase, a meal that would end with another helping of milk bread.

The omakase format is twisted a bit at Kumiko. The food menu is fixed, and the drinks are improvised. Momose, or her husband Sammy Faze, interview you about your flavor preferences and play dealer’s choice throughout the night, creating different cocktails to pair with each course.

Momose was in Japan the night we visited. This could have been disastrous, as the real test of a restaurant is whether it can execute even when its principal visionary is out of town. Momose’s team is A+. 

We drew Faze as our bartender. The guy is a barside Baryshnikov. He can carry on a conversation, mix well-balanced drinks and invent something on the spot. His movements, the flicks and undulations of his wrist as he pours or garnishes, the swizzle of his bar spoon, and the deliberate way he shields a glass with a strainer while he fills it with ice, is a graceful show. 

Photo credit: Christina Nagrant

Some of the pairings, especially the early sake/sushi ones, are the same for everyone. But, even in these set pairings, there is still choice. Faze offers a platter topped with Italian and Japanese cordial glasses, asking me to pick my favorite for one of the pours.

Chicago may have transcended its meat and potatoes reputation, but it is still very much a stirred brown liquor town. Lighter spirits like shochu and sake have struggled here. I think Kumiko is poised to shift that perspective.

If Otto Phan of Kyoten really wants a Michelin star, he should apprentice with Russell. The early progression of maki and sashimi served with supple nori, pristine fish, and toothsome grains of maybe the best sushi rice I’ve had in Chicago, was better than anything I had at Kyoten.

Fried bonito, sea grape and sturgeon caviar-topped maki, and New Zealand salmon nigiri dabbed with smoked Alaskan salmon roe, are incredible studies in contrasting texture. Both are salty, smoky and bursting snacks I could crunch all day like Ruffles.

Until now I had always thought of chawanmushi, as a wobbly Japanese panna cotta, i.e. something you get jiggly with (nah, nah, nah, na, nah, na, nah), but the Kumiko kitchen serves theirs smooth like a savory crème brulee (without the crackling top). The lime notes of a sudachi high ball mingle well with earthy matsutake-infused custard and kumquat garnish.

There is also A5 wagyu lacquered in black garlic molasses. It is so tender, it dissolves like a Fanny May Mint Meltaway.

As promised, the milk bread makes another appearance at dessert on the omakase menu. It is just as good as on my first visit, but it’s the drink pairing, a “hot chocolate” which is enlightening. The hot chocolate features Rhine Hall Bierschnapps, a liquor made from Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, infused with hot water, crème de cacao, and a cola nut-infused and nutmeg-dusted cream. When I had this drink on our initial visit, it tasted like Swiss Miss, the only misstep across my two meals, because they poured too much hot water in to the mix. This time, the balance was right, and it tasted like I’d shoved my head in a cacao roaster. 

I love that sake plays such an important part at Kumiko. I’m a novice with respect to Japanese rice wine, but what I’ve learned is that the fundamental differences between the worst and best sakes comes from making a few very simple choices, like what kind of water source is used and how much the rice grain is polished before fermentation. The great Daiginjo makers for example often polish or mill their rice and remove more than 50% of the outer husk to achieve the clarity of color and cleanliness of taste prized in fine sake. This comes at a high cost, because these sake makers have to use a lot more grain than those who polish their rice less.

Kumiko feels very much like a Daiginjo sake, which is to say Momose, the Sandovals, and Russell looked at the elements of design, hospitality, food, and drink, and kept polishing, refining, and stripping away, no matter the cost, until they found the perfect mix. Momose and her team have done the work. May they enjoy the light.

Kumiko is located at 630 W. Lake St. in Chicago