The Trouble With Takashi

It’s probably not a good sign when your restaurant’s banquettes look like they’re covered with spermatozoa. I know the interior designer for Takashi (1952 North Damen) thought the fabric pattern they chose, thousands of long, subtle, flaggelating lines punctuated by random ovals, seemed modern, harmless and organic, but unfortunately, it’s too organic. During my entire meal I had flashbacks of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and eighth grade “PBS NOVA” health videos.

With its clean lines, expansive bird mural and predominantly monochromatic color scheme, the entire space looks like a fight between a 1950s-era Herman Miller designer and a Feng Shui specialist. Set in a former brick two-story workman’s cottage that used to house Scylla, a neighborhood lair that could have doubled as your home dining room, Takashi now looks like a true restaurant, a mini-zen cousin of Paul Kahan’s Blackbird space.

Exposed red brick has been painted a drab gray, complementing the stainless steel and glass environs of the open kitchen on the first level, while the homey bones of the place have been dry-walled in with sharp right angles. Frankly, the dining room of Takashi reflects a lot of what I imagined my unfettered bachelor pad might have looked like. Fortunately I got married right after college, and my wife’s practical nature tempered my fantasies of a sleek chamber filled with Le Corbusier, Mies, Eames and George Nelson furniture. The truth is, as cool as this type of stuff looks, it’s generally equally uncomfortable and sterile.

This is a dining column, though, and not Architectural Digest. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I don’t put much stock in décor. But in Takashi’s case, the vibe from the interior seems to have some bearing on what’s going on in the kitchen.

It’s not that the food’s not good. Replete with sweetbreads, monkfish “foie gras,” pork belly and duck-leg confit, the menu is basically my personal desert-island or death-row meal.

The technical execution of each of these plates is spot on. Takashi Yagihashi is a James Beard Award-winning chef, and he’s got the chops to justify the honor. Folks have been equating foie gras with sweetbreads for years, but other than the fact that they’re both organ meats, I’ve never agreed with the comparison. Sweetbreads tend to be firmer and crunchier. Takashi’s, which are coated in Dijon mustard and soy and pan-sautéed, have the requisite crunch, but the interior was molten like your best fatty duck liver. Despite being the best technical version of sweetbreads I’ve ever had, the accompaniments—from ho-hum swiss chard to roasted chestnut chunks to a green peppercorn or Arimasansho sauce—were repetitively rich, and lacked a punchy acidic or sweet counterpoint.

Soy ginger caramel pork belly was mom’s-pot-roast tender, though the hint of ginger and tiny dose of caramel flavor of the belly were ensnared by the tang of the accompanying pickled daikon.

The potato-crusted Atlantic salmon, ruby jewel-like nuggets of fish enrobed in crunchy fried potato, was perfectly cooked, but reminiscent of Shawn McClain’s crispy potato-wrapped shitake mushrooms at Green Zebra. This made me realize I prefer the funky, rich, slow-roasted shitake interior at Zebra to the sea-kissed salmon flesh here.

One dish I’m totally unambiguous about is Takashi’s duck-fat-fried chicken and frites. If Hot Doug Sohn, the sausage king of Avondale, is listening: Yo, Chef Takashi is calling you out in the duck-fat usage department, man. Yagahashi marinates chicken in sake and seasons the tender nuggets with lemongrass, before rolling them in rice flour and dropping them along with some hand-cut potato slivers in a roiling vat of rich stomach-delighting duck fat. As Gordie Lachance of cinema’s “Stand by Me” might say, this is probably best fried chicken in four counties.

Problem was, as with most of the small plates at Takashi, which range portion-wise somewhere between amuse bouche and weak-ass appetizer size, I wanted more. A justifiable price on these plates would be $8-$10, not the $12-$14 they were charging. Likewise, the entrees, which mostly clocked in at mid-to-upper twenties in price, were marginally bigger than the small plates we had. Summoning the ghost of Scylla once again, most of Stephanie Izard’s entrées, which were executed with at least as much aplomb as Yagihashi’s, were under $20. Then again, Izard ended up closing her place. With such a small dining room, Yagihashi may have to charge these prices to create a reasonable profit.

Though, journalistically, I shouldn’t take sides, Yagihashi’s my homeboy. He spent many years bringing real food to my native Detroit at Tribute restaurant, and I’d love to see him succeed now that he’s back in Chicago. But as I’ve outlined, there’s a sterility on the plate and in the dining room I can’t escape. I may be wrong, because who knows what’s in anyone’s heart, but it feels as if Yagihashi is straddling the line between who he is and who he thinks his customers want him to be. Takashi is worth at least one visit for food lovers, but I think if Yagihashi listens to his muse and kindles some fire in his belly, the restaurant will be ripe for repeat visitation.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity Chicago.

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