Paul Virant is returning to Chicago proper to open a Japanese restaurant in the West Loop. The acclaimed chef will come back to the city with Gaijin, a 60-seater planned for a mid- to late-summer opening at 950 W. Lake Street. The decorated chef never left the area as he’s kept busy with two suburban restaurants, Vie in Western Springs and Vistro in Hinsdale. Virant hasn’t had a Chicago restaurant since Perennial Virant closed in 2016 in Lincoln Park.
“We’re really excited” Virant said on Monday afternoon.
The restaurant will focus on savory okonomiyaki, a griddled pancake-like comfort food that originated in Osaka. Chicago restaurants, from Sunda to Izakaya Mita to Ramen-san, have served the item, stuffed with ingredients like squid, shrimp, corn, and pork. These ingredients are mixed into the batter when cooking traditional Osaka-style okonomiyaki. Virant will also serve the item Hiroshima style with layered ingredients.
Virant said that his wife, Dr. Jennifer T. Virant, spent a semester in Japan near Osaka where she grew fond of the item. While Virant wasn’t hooked immediately, his chef’s curiosity got the best of him, and he soon spent time trying to figure out the best way of cooking okonomiyaki. He said the Internet wasn’t much help.
The couple traveled to Japan in 2016 and conducted research and the comforting dish is now “part of the family.” Virant’s two teenage children grew up eating it. A Gaijin, Virant hopes he can introduce Chicago to the virtues of the dish while giving Japanese tourists a taste of home.
While he pledges to stay “traditional to the core ingredients,” there will be American tweaks. During his travels, Virant said he didn’t see chicken or beef used. The ingredients will be options at his restaurant. They’ll also have a few small plates to complement the pancakes. Virant is still figuring out the menu, but there be about seven pancakes. Diners can also pick their own ingredient combos. Virant described the atmosphere as relaxed; it’s not fine dining or fast casual. They’ll also offer carry out and delivery.
“There’s so many of these places in Japan, they kind of describe as pizza,” Virant said. “That’s more because you have find it any place — it’s a pretty comforting dish found all over the country.”
A few of the tables will have teppanyaki plates to keep the food warm. They’’ll have an open kitchen. Gaijin is Japanese slang used to describe foreigners and non-Japanese in the country. The word can have a negative connotation in Japan, but responses vary. Stay tuned for updates after an interview with Virant.
Crain’s first reported the story