Static on the Radio

Michael Nagrant / 04.15.18

When I first walked in to Green Street Smoked Meats, I remember telling owner Brendan Sodikoff to fuck off. Not in a mean-spirited way. Rather I’d tweeted it at him, trying to express a combination of slight jealousy (that one person could be so talented) and gratitude (that I had been transported to a very happy place). Through the interior design, Sodikoff had conjured a honky-tonk, a backyard BBQ, and even somehow the gymnasium set of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I didn’t want to eat at Green Street as much as I wanted to weep to relieve my heart of bursting nostalgia.

This is not atypical. Sodikoff’s creations, a 1980s Brooklyn pizza-parlor, a 40s supper club, or a rich man’s Jewish deli, feel like the real thing. Actually, that’s not right. Like a Warhol soup can or a Jeff Koons balloon dog, they feel like a better or idealized version, a great realization that never was.

Radio Anago, the new sushi joint from Sodikoff, should also fit this mold. All his design hallmarks are here: a bright cramped waiting room precedes entry in to a low-lit capacious dining room, a conceit that makes you feel like you’re walking in to another world. There are ironic and eye-catching design quirks. A neon clock hanging over the kitchen pass runs fifteen minutes early. There are also mid-century modern touches like plush banquettes lit by individual tiny gold-colored table lamps. The muffled bass soundtrack that permeates the dining room is a mesmerizing collection of trip hop. All you have to do at Anago is sidle in, get lazy, and chew the fat.

Anago feels like Au Cheval crossed with Bavette’s and a touch of Gilt Bar and Dillman’s, sprinkled with grandma’s heirloom crystal soy-sauce decanters. It’s not that it’s not thoughtful and or beautiful, but it doesn’t feel as original as Green Street. I understand. Sustained original creation is a tough business. You will likely read something here that I’ve typed many times before.

What is new, and something I particularly relish, is a menu featuring hand-drawn illustrations of unagi, toro, and a mai tai. Tempted by the drawing, I order and find the tiki cocktail’s fruit flavors suppressed by a supreme bitterness. The drink is not nearly as delicious or enticing as its paper depiction. Though this is a Japanese-influenced restaurant, the illustrated menu channels the ubiquitous zodiac placemat, or the plastic covered photo album menus purveyed by many American Chinese restaurants. I am, as I was at Green Street Meats, once again reduced to memories of my youth, in this case confirming that I was born in the year of the dragon before ordering a heaping portion of almond boneless chicken.

But, I am also an adult craving adult things. This is why, though I love uni like I love my children, I avoid the sea urchin and yuzu “shooters”. I will not be party to that come-hither beckon, nor will I be a liquor gunslinger working my way toward a bartop jig later in the evening.

I find the maturity that I am craving in a wagyu tartare, a riot of beef, salty miso, tangy pear juice, and the mouthwatering iodine brininess of seaweed. The balance of this dish makes you question the wisdom of layering raw rich yolk in to rich beef in the classic preparation. The Anago tartare is accompanied by taro chips. They are warm, crisp, and light. I recognize that using this tuber reinforces the vaguely Asian theme of Radio Anago in a way that russets do not, but taro exhibits a kind of dry-mouth-invoking starchiness. I wish for a crisp waffle-cut or wavy Idaho potato instead.

The very best fried chicken invokes joy in any age. The $25 Houji fried chicken of Radio Anago delights no one. It is a plate where curation usurps degustation, where the cooks somehow forget to dust the bird with salt, but make time to shower it with tasteless edible gold leaf. The plate comes with a set of golden shears for breaching the cutlets whose matcha or green-tea dusted crust is sandy and acrid. They really double down on matcha at Anago, putting it in the soft serve and the dessert shots, shots which boast monikers like “woo woo” and “matcha gogo” (it will be very hard for you not to hum the Queen lyrics “radio goo goo, radio gaga” at some point during your meal). This is weird because I’m pretty sure the bro-tastic bunch obviously being marketed at Radio Anago has never craved matcha.

The bird is brined, leaving a juicy interior, but the brine does not season the crust or the flesh. I feel sheepish complaining about fried chicken, wondering if I’m being too purist. But, less than 24 hours later, I’m wolfing down juicy golden nuggets of well-salted Japanese-fried chicken in a suburban strip mall ($4.80) at Kitikata ramen, and I realize THIS is what I wanted. The first rule of elevating a classic is, first, do no harm.

Our server notices we’ve barely touched the plate and asks if everything is ok. Sodikoff once worked at the French Laundry where every plate that returns to kitchen is inspected as if it were a homicide scene. I appreciate that that happens at Anago too. The chef confirms that the chicken is under seasoned and our bill is credited for the cost of the dish.

I tolerate mushy rice and the occasional off piece of delivery sushi, but when I go out for raw fish, I expect and demand the pristine bounty of the sea anointed by a sage master like Masa Takayama of Masa, BK of Juno, Naoki Nakashima of Naoki or Gen Mizoguchi of Las Vegas’s Yui Edomae.

Things start out ok at Anago. Like a Big Mac oozing special sauce, the warm miso scallop maki drips with spicy mayo. Despite the squishy blanketing rice, it is a salty conglomerate of tempura crunch and comfort. Sea urchin is clean and funky and propped up on a pliant ring of seaweed, not the rubbery compound served with super market sushi. The unagi is broiler-crisp and daubed with sweet glaze.

But the pricey tuna flight, featuring o toro, chutoro, akami and tuna tartare, rewards me with two pieces of fish past their prime and wafting ammonia. The server again notices I have left some tuna behind and says she will have the chef double check the flavor. Again, the bill is credited.

The service at Radio Anago is textbook. In addition to the credits, we are also offered a Hogsalt gift certificate for our troubles. I appreciate this, but I’ve come to expect an otherworldly reverie from Hogsalt, not a dose of cold reality.

One aspect of Hogsalt restaurants I didn’t always get was the parsimonious dessert offering. I felt like Sodikoff who once worked as a pastry chef would double down on the art of sweets instead of restricting them. But what I came to appreciate was that when he offered only a few choices, he made sure they were unparalleled. (The giant mille-feuille from Au Cheval comes to mind) I now understand that doing one thing very well instead of a lot of things just ok is the right move. This tradition continues at Radio Anago in the form of a coconut cake so tender that it weeps moisture with the intensity of a contestant cut during the final rose ceremony of The Bachelor.

When I first moved to Chicago, Randolph street was rife with club-kid friendly sushi joints featuring lots of black lacquer, bootytastic beats, and big ass maki. The problem with Anago is that it feels like the 2018 version of those spots: tempura-that, spicy-this, shooters, saketinis, and edamame, oh, my! I expect Sodikoff and Hogsalt to create trends, not moderately riff on them.

And, so it might seem that I have begun where I started, telling Sodikoff to sod off, this time for real. However, that’s not my intent. At worst, I’m a dedicated fan, who just doesn’t like the newest album. On deeper reflection, one of the problems with being a food critic is after a while, you know too much. As hard as I try, I don’t experience restaurants like the occasional diner. For example, the wasabi served at Anago is a freshly grated product which is then frozen and thawed for service. The result is a sharp paste that overpowers the scallop. I crave delicate freshly grated wasabi which pops almost like caviar and imparts spice, but doesn’t flare the nostrils. However, if I take off my critic hat and look at the wider business angle, Anago’s wasabi is better than most fake wasabi made of horseradish and mustard seed served by so many spots and people will like that, i.e. it’s good enough. I imagine Sodikoff might argue that the frozen product’s sharpness is similar to what most people are used to consuming, and to use the truly fresh stuff might be jarring. I also remind myself that many diners don’t even know the old Randolph places like Sushi Wabi and their ilk existed. Most diners aren’t looking for live quivering scallops, tuna flown in from Tsukiji, or yearning for pioneering creativity. They just want a fun place to go.

Through that lens, Anago is doing fine. After giving feedback about the fried chicken, and after our server left, the couple next to us commiserated, agreeing it wasn’t very good. Just as I was feeling a kinship with my fellow eaters, I realized they hadn’t ordered the fried chicken, so I wondered, how did they know how it tasted? They informed me that despite the chicken, this was already their second visit to Radio Anago.

Radio Anago is located at 226 W. Kinzie.