Behind every colossal celebrity chef there’s a great chef de cuisine. For Charlie Trotter, preeminent culinary godfather of Chicago, that kitchen archangel was Matthias Merges, whose official title at Charlie Trotter’s was director of operations and executive chef. (‘Angel’ may be a strong word, but anyone who lasts 14 years with Trotter, known for demanding perfection and excellence at all times, deserves some kudos.) But after nimbly steering the Trotter’s behemoth for all those years, Merges decided to leave the world-famous chef and venture out on his own.
His bustling new Avondale restaurant Yusho, a small plates spot specializing in Japanese-inspired street food, including grilled-to-order skewers, is about as far from Trotter’s serene Lincoln Park restaurant as you can get. But, like at Trotter’s, the food at Yusho is all about the details.
Yusho’s dining room—designed by Merges’ architect wife and her business partner—is industrial but not cold, with mismatched light fixtures, bright-colored doors, exposed brick walls and a pirate ship’s worth of wood planks that make up the floor, tabletops and bar. The flickering images of samurai films and Japanese anime projected on the back dining room’s brick wall conjures a vintage summer evening watching movies on the back of a clothesline-hung white sheet.
Like the cheerful décor, the food and drink lift your spirits and make you feel good even if you’re in a bad mood—everything is that delicious.
The Baconian Cipher cocktail— the name is a nod to Henry Bacon, architect of Logan Square’s “column” monument—with tequila, vermouth, a selection of bitters and grilled clove, is a delicious pas de deux of burnt citrus and coffee-like bitterness. Clove perfume roils in my nose and settles my stomach with every sip.
My server, wiry like a Tour de France cyclist, is empathetic, but not submissive.
He appreciates my menu needs, but also insists I order a handful of other dishes. And I comply, for he is full of technique and ingredient knowledge; he’s clearly eaten the whole menu. And if you bring three friends, you can too. Ordering every plate at Yusho—there are 28 total divided among three categories: Grilled Birds, Land & Sea and Sweet—is easily within your grasp for less than $250. (Bonus for late-night diners: The full menu is available until midnight on Friday and Saturday.) It’s a pretty amazing deal considering it’s coming from the chef who trained culinary stars like Graham Elliot, Bill Kim and Giuseppe Tentori.
Though some plates are one-biters at Yusho, many, like the twice-fried chicken, are ample. Alas, this is also the only plate I don’t love. The mahogany fried boneless strips, dusted in fine-milled green tea powder and served with a lime-zest-sprinkled kanzuri chili sauce, are slightly dry and remind me of the chicken fingers at a chain restaurant.
But another dish, the flaky eel lounging on airy brandade beignets, is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. It epitomizes Merges’ style. While Yusho’s spirit is Japanese, his cuisine, like this plate, is international. The dish was a mashup of Japanese ingredients (eel), French technique (brandade) and Southern/Mexican flavors (hominy). Yusho is really an affordable à la carte version of the Trotter’s pan-fusion vision—but with a more Asian twist.
Whether it’s an earthy maitake mushroom swimming in poached egg vinaigrette alongside cubes of amber-colored dashi gelée or smoky grilled oysters glistening with apple cider and sake, pristine ingredients, and their interplay, are what’s most important at Yusho.
Anything goes here as long as it’s tasty. Wispy bonito flakes sit atop rich duck confit dumplings, adding a deeply savory essence. They’re terrifyingly kinetic—watch how the dried fish shavings “squirm” when the air blows through them—but briny and a particularly good partner to the silky duck, which is served with fiery chili and crisp scallions. Wrinkly grilled chicken skin—yes, that’s the main component of the dish—looks like cast-off pantyhose woven on a wooden skewer, and at first seem intimidating, but with a coating of sweet/sour Japanese mustard and crisps of pickled garlic, I wish I could have had a whole bowl to myself on Super Bowl Sunday.
Pacing of dishes is often too fast and occasionally servers disappear too long, staring into cellphones or the iPad-based point-of-service system, but these are minor quibbles.
After dining at Yusho, my only real regret is that Merges took 14 years to do this. On the other hand, if this had happened earlier, would I have experienced something so fully formed? Too many chefs regretfully open too young. I relish Merges’ maturity. It’s pretty safe to say an angel just got his wings. Again.
2853 N. Kedzie Ave., 773.904.8558
This article first appeared in CS in a different form.