Monday, January 14, 2013
On January 14, 2013, 64 members of the Chicago Baillage journeyed to the Northwest Side’s culturally diverse Avondale neighborhood to experience Yusho, the year-old yakitori-inspired venture of Chef-Owner Matthias Merges. A casual evening, with many members in jeans, was no less gastronomically inspiring than our most formal events, as Chef Matthias calmly conducted his band of skilled professionals through eight waves of supremely accessible shared plates (19 offerings in total!) and noteworthy beverage pairings.
Having worked for two decades with Chicago’s culinary elite, including a 14-year stint as the right-hand man to Charlie Trotter, Chef Matthias transitioned from the “orchestra hall” of world-renowned fine dining to a distinctly casual neighborhood gig in December 2011. Yusho strives to elevate the simple, bold flavors of Japanese street food (often cooked over hot grills, yakatori style) by creatively preparing and presenting seasonal, quality ingredients using extraordinary technique. But it’s not only about the food at Yusho. The small open kitchen and bar share the same space, and the identical passion behind the cuisine has been infused into Yusho’s innovative izakaya-inspired beverage program. Unlike fine dining restaurants that are typically limited to wine pairings, Yusho servers deftly orchestrate provocative pairings of cocktails, sake, beer and, of course, wine. While architectural elements such as the exposed brick walls and repurposed wood bar top may encourage an expectation of casual dining, our evening showed that Chef Matthias is no less a maestro in this setting than in his prior engagements.
It became evident at our reception that Chef Matthias has surrounded himself with some strong players. Barman-in-Chief Alex Bachman had classic Gin Rickeys on draught, which proved to be a shrewd move for the thirsty audience. He mixed an enormous batch of this cocktail and then force carbonated the keg, resulting in a uniform level of carbonation throughout a drink that could be served quickly to many people. Chef Matthias’ superstar in the kitchen is Chef de Cuisine Jennifer Petrusky, also formerly at Charlie Trotter’s and a 2010 Bocuse d’Or USA winner for Best Fish Platter. For our warm-up act, the Yusho team passed seemingly endless platters of crispy mushroom brandade dressed with house-made wasabi mustard and fennel as well as a spicy tuna maki with daikon and carrot, both of which boded well for the main act.
Following our reception, members took their seats throughout the simple, natural space, which was designed by Chef Matthias’ wife and partner, architect Rachel Crowl. The restaurant has two distinct sections—a long group of booths directly opposite the open kitchen, and the high-ceilinged back room where whimsical anime and monster movies played throughout the night. The restaurant design explores contrasting textures of neutral brick, wood, concrete and fabric with welcome pops of color from eclectic lighting fixtures inspired by Japanese hanging lanterns. It was the perfect stage for the masterful culinary performance that was about to begin.
Our first sit-down presentation comprised grilled oysters with ponzu, shallot and green onion—a perfect expression of the ocean—and a bowl of grilled octopus and enoki mushrooms in an egg yolk emulsion. The Chaîne provided an “antique” sake to pair with these dishes—the Kiuchi Kurashizuku Junmai Ginjo Usu-Nigori sake is roughly filtered, so it appears somewhat opaque, and its slightly sweet flavor with delicate hints of coconut and melon matched the seafood offerings delightfully well.
Our next set of small plates explored how humble ingredients can be creatively manipulated into some of the most exciting bites of the evening. The trio of skins—chicken, fish and pork—were boldly seasoned with Japanese mustard, garlic and togarashi and fried so puffy and crispy that they could easily be broken into bite-sized pieces. The tempura of sishito peppers, squash and swiss chard was outstanding, but the dish at or near the top of everyone’s greatest hits list was the boneless stuffed chicken wings with bonito salt, lime and Thai chili. Cooking this protein yakitori-style over binchō-tan charcoal, which burns cleanly and odorlessly, allowed the rich flavor of the moist chicken to sing. The Chaîne selected a fine 2002 Cloudy Bay Chardonnay to pair with these courses.
Once these plates were cleaned (and our pleas for an encore of wings subsided), a perfectly timed trio of tantalizing tastes appeared. Grilled and skewered tofu was wrapped in a chrysanthemum leaf and topped with pineapple compote and a crispy walnut tuille. We also were presented with a refreshing bowl of colorful and crunchy pickled cucumbers, lotus roots and carrots. Perhaps the highlight of this round was the takoyaki. On the streets of Osaka you’d typically find these pancake spheres filled with octopus, but this delicious version incorporated a savory blend of pork, garlic, miso and scallion. Alex had thoughtfully selected a fine full-bodied Slovenian white wine made with 100% Ribolla grapes, a 2011 Simčič Rebula, which had notes of green apple and citrus.
A trio of full-flavored proteins followed. The skewer-grilled Muscovy duck breast was a stunning presentation resting in shiitake-scallion marmalade with perfectly balanced honshemeji mushrooms “growing” out of each piece. An amazing steam bun enveloped a flavorful blood sausage and was dressed with marinated cauliflower, herbs and bean sprouts and a red pepper sauce (the dish was named the “Cosmo” steam bun, a nod to Chaîne friend and charcuterie master Cosmo Goss from Publican Quality Meats). Last but not least, we enjoyed awe-inspiring sweetbreads, crispy on the outside and creamy within, generously coated with an umami-laden umeboshi BBQ sauce and garnished with frisée and toasted soybeans. The tart cherry notes of the Monk’s Café Flemish Sour beer, selected by the Yusho team, complemented these three dishes beautifully.
Next, we were presented with a sublime dish: a rich layer of lobster and dashi-infused chawanmushi that was accompanied by lightly grilled maitake, the crispy but tender mushrooms serving as a perfect deliver system for the flavorful custard. Members also enjoyed beautifully seasoned pork spare ribs on a bed of brussel sprouts and kimchi, topped with some coarsely chopped chive. Alex selected a 2010 Palacios “Camins del Priorat,” a powerful but elegant Spanish blend of Carignan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes, to complement the bold flavors of these two dishes.
Our evening progressed to our final savory course, a duo of beef. One side of the plate hosted black garlic risotto resting beneath two beautiful strip loin medallions wrapped in nori (visually evoking our maki roll appetizer), which provided the illusion of being char-encrusted. On the other side of the plate was an incredibly tender miso-braised oxtail confit surmounted by a grilled shishito pepper that provided a crunchy, bitter textural contrast. The Chaîne dug deep into its cellar for one of the pairing highlights of the night: 1988 Château Meyney, a silky smooth Bordeaux that still exhibited some stone fruit on the palate with tobacco and pepper notes.
Finally, our show concluded with delightful tofu doughnuts jazzed up with ginger and green tea, successfully converting tofu disparagers into tofu advocates. And of course, like all good performances, we were treated to an encore: soft-serve eggnog ice cream, topped with Fernet caramel and a crunchy nori-infused tuille. Our desserts were paired with Luxardo Fernet, an amaro with intense herbal qualities and a powerful eucalyptus finish that was too aggressive for some, leaving more for the Fernet aficionados among us.
At the end of the evening, Bailli Jane Tracy gave Chaîne awards and our gratitude to Chef Matthias Merges, and his instrumental co-star, Chef de Cuisine Jennifer Petrusky. Both of these leaders were quick to shine the spotlight on the entire staff, and everyone recognized that this amazing performance was the product of a fine-tuned team. The Bailli articulated what every guest was thinking: how did this small band of culinary professionals serve 19 flawless courses at a perfect pace to 64 people out of a home-sized kitchen? We may never know, but assuredly we’ll all be back for another virtuoso performance.
In Japanese the word “Yusho” means combining the acts of winning and giving a celebratory toast, a perfect name for an establishment that landed at or near the top of many “Best New Restaurant 2012” lists both locally and nationally. The name also proved prophetic for Chaîne members too, as the extraordinary Yusho team provided us with a truly enthusiastic start to our dining adventures in 2013. Whether his musical title is maestro or rock star, Chef Matthias gave a culinary concert that Chaîne members will never forget. Bravo Yusho!
Our January dinner will be a foray into the world of yakitori-inspired Japanese street food. Chef/Owner Matthias Merges’ pedigree in Chicago and nationwide has attracted great interest among the culinary community upon opening Yusho in Avondale one year ago. Eater Awards recently voted Yusho its Restaurant of the Year for 2012. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and formerly Executive Chef and Director of Operations at Charlie Trotter’s for many years, Chef Merges has a passion for the aesthetic.
The restaurant is long and narrow with tables and booths; a chef’s counter with stools overlooking the preparation area reveals team Yusho quietly and earnestly going about their business. It’s décor, which is as eclectic as its menu, was by architect Rachel Crowl, who is coincidentally Chef’s wife and partner.
Chef Merges was inspired by the grilling-centric restaurant Extebarri in Spain’s Basque country and the simple flavors of authentic street food of Japan. Yusho’s cuisine is a celebration of the intense flavors that a flawless execution can draw from fresh grilling seasonal proteins and vegetables in provocative combinations using a very hot grill. And, in true Yusho fashion, crafted cocktails, beer, sake and wine selections will compliment the courses.
Yusho in Japanese means a tournament championship – the first place position at the end of a top level sports competition. It can also mean a Japanese toast – a call to
celebration. I like the second definition… For Chef Merges, this place is a product of passion where there is a tangible impression that this culinary lion is cooking from his heart. At Yusho, Chef Merges is aided by a highly accomplished culinary team that includes Chef Jennifer Petrusky also formerly at Charlie Trotter’s and a 2010 Bocuse d’Or USA winner for Best Fish Platter.
Do join us for what will be a casual, cosy food journey comprising a roller coaster of flavors, temperatures and textures. As Chef Merges declares “….the door is open, the grill is hot!”