Chef Paul Virant and his team were giddy over the weekend as the griddle for their new West Loop restaurant had finally arrived. Virant plans to open Gaijin on November 11 and reservations are now available via Resy. The Japanese restaurant, 950 W. Lake Street, will specialize in savory Japanese pancakes stuffed with ingredients like pork belly, yakisoba, and octopus.
Virant is excited to once more have a restaurant in Chicago. He’s most known in the city for Perennial Virant, his former restaurant inside the Hotel Lincoln across from Lincoln Park. The restaurant closed at the end of December 2016. In the meantime, Virant has continued to operate Vistro and Vie in the suburbs in Hinsdale and Western Springs.
On Saturday, the chef gave fans a taste of what Gaijin will serve at a pop-up at Publican Quality Meats. A limited number of pancakes were available and the supply was sold out by noon. Besides the thin pancakes, better known as okonomiyaki (not to be confused with the trendy, sweet, and fluffy Japanese pancakes make its rounds around America), customers also had a chance to try a special beer Moody Tongue Brewing is making for Gaijin. It’s a lager that goes down exceptionally smooth.
Now, let’s talk about the griddle. It’s a big deal as Virant and his team can now hone their skills at their restaurant versus trying out recipes inside other people’s kitchens. Virant said it’s a 12-foot long custom-made griddle from Jade. There are different temperatures zones every 12 inches. That’s important as Virant said okonomiyaki benefits from different levels of heat during the stages of cooking from the initial crisping stage to when it gets folded. Different Japanese cities offer different versions of the item. Virant points out, for example, that Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is made with yakisoba. Hiroshima pancakes use toppings versus Osaka which mixes ingredients in the batter. Virant said he’ll also provide an udon option as well as vegan choices: “You kind of have to, now,” he said.
Virant is embracing the outsider approach to Japanese culture, as he and his wife became enamored with the country on their visits. Gaijin is a Japanese word for “foreigners.” It’s sometimes used in a derogatory manner. Virant isn’t the first to use the word for a restaurant. There have been restaurants in Grand Rapids, Michigan; California; and a few in England.
Gaijin is one of fall’s most anticipated restaurant openings in Chicago. Stay tuned for more coverage.