Michelin-starred modern Japanese restaurant Yugen, helmed by chef Mari Katsumura, plans to open for the first time since March on July 31 with a retail section in the space that previously housed Yugen’s izakaya-style lounge Kaisho (“meeting place”). Kaisho Grab & Go, is modeled after conbini, or Japanese convenience stores. They’ll also add a tiki-themed patio space with its own menu, called Kaisho Tiki Takeover.
For Katsumura, the reopening is a chance to show off her more playful side: “People don’t think of fine dining restaurants as the most fun,” she says. “They might be incredible, but not everybody thinks of them as fun.”
Yugen and Katsumura took over the Randolph Street space after the closing of Grace, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant that abruptly shuttered three years ago. Under the same ownership as Grace, Katsumura and her team have featured nostalgia-driven tasting menus influenced by her parents, Yoshi and Nobuko Katsumura of Yoshi’s Cafe. The Lakeview landmark is known for Japanese cuisine melded with French technique. Yugen, along with every other Chicago restaurant, was forced to close due to the pandemic. Many — like Bar Biscay in West Town, Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Bucktown, and Pisolino in Avondale — switched to a general store concept to adapt.
Now, Yugen — one of the city’s most expensive restaurants — is poised to follow with a fine dining approach to the idea in the haute West Loop. The relaunch represents Katsumura’s conception of a new normal may look like in the hospitality industry.
“I think a lot of Japanese people [in Japan] rely on convenience stores in a way maybe we haven’t before,” Katsumura says. “Maybe we will do more of that because of the pandemic — it’s something Japan has been doing for decades that I think we’ll now heavily rely on as well.”
The team transformed Kaisho — Yugen’s front lounge; a casual cousin — into a snack haven with offerings inspired by those seen at Japanese convenience stores. Customers can expect crustless white bread sandwiches like egg salad, ham and cheese, and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet); scallop and prawn chips; and build-your-own mentaiko carbonara bowls (udon, uni butter, fried tempura crumbs, kizami nori), and ramen (ramen noodles, tonkotsu broth, braised pork belly, soy-cured yolk, pickled mushrooms). Sides and sweets include Japanese potato salad, sunomono pickles, macaron, and Kaisho’s popular “Japanese chex mix.” There’s also wine and sake by the bottle, as well as a few cocktail kits.
This kind of casual Japanese food, and riffs on it, is gaining traction in Chicago: new Japanese pop up Nine Bar sells bites like onigiri (stuffed rice balls), katsu sandos, and to-go cocktails, and chef Brian Fisher of Michelin-starred Entente has featured his take on a katsu sando (chicken mousseline, fermented blueberries, kewpie, shio cabbage, shokupan, beni shoga ginger) at his stall in mammoth Fulton Market food hall Time Out Market. The team behind Mom’s featured similar fare at Politan Row food hall in West Loop. Over at Michelin-starred Kikko and Kumiko, chef Mariya Russell was applying the same philosophy.
For purists, there’s recently-renovated suburban Arlington Heights Japanese market Mitsuwa. Michelin inspectors seemed to be enthralled with Chicago’s Japanese restaurants in 2019. So Yugen may be on the early edge of a Chicago trend, or at least a growing understanding among the city’s non-Japanese diners of the country’s vast and varied culinary cultures.
The pandemic has turned patios into potential lifelines for restaurants, and Yugen plans to capitalize on its previously-unused asset with a “Kaisho Tiki Takeover,” a tropically-themed afternoon and evening spot with treats like frozen drinks and kushiyaki (Japanese grilled skewers). Yugen’s patio seats 20. It “gives us an opportunity to have a lot more fun as a staff and a team,” Katsumura says. “It’ll bring out a side out of us as people that [diners] don’t get to see all the time.”
Yugen’s patio drink offerings weave Japanese ingredients and flavors into the tropical concoctions. Case in point: the “Kiss Me Under the Cherry Blossoms” (sweet potato shochu, sake, homemade falernum, passionfruit syrup, homemade almond orgeat, pineapple shrub) and the frozen “Sunshine in Hokkaido” (barrel-aged cachaça, pineapple rum, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, pineapple cinnamon shrub, brown rice simple syrup).
Katsumura’s kushikayi options err on the traditional side, with yakitori selections such as thigh and green onion, crispy skin, and liver, plus A5 waygu and asparagus, and a seasonal tskune, or meatball. Katsumura is also including meat-free skewers featuring eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and corn, and less-common sauces such as miso caramel and Japanese hot mustard. All skewers will be grilled over over Japanese high-heat coal, or binchotan. The patio menu also includes a Kaisho burger (A5 patty, giardiniera, wasabi cheddar, arugula, bread and butter pickles, onion mayo, Kennebec tempura fries) and shakes in flavors like red bean and matcha. Patio diners will be able to order off full wine and sake lists.
After several months of being cooped up during the stay-at-home order, Yugen’s team aims to create an outdoor space that still feels comfortable and somewhat secluded. The patio isn’t directly on the street, so noise and disruption is minimal. Staff and patrons will be required to follow pandemic guidelines related to face coverings and sanitization. “Most of these are the safety precautions we’ve always taken, now it’s just being heightened and illuminated,” GM Morgan Olszewski says. “This isn’t anything new for us — keeping guests healthy, clean and safe. It just flows with service.”
Olszewski’s father, Michael, is the restaurant’s owner. Beyond the Kaisho reboot and patio debut, Katsumura has also altered Yugen’s core tasting menu operations. She’s pared down the menus from two tiers to one, which will feature eight courses for $190 per person (plus $125 for beverage pairing that includes both wine and sake). The chef sees the new tasting menu as a base package that diners can supplement with high-end extras like black truffles and A5 waygu for an extra special occasion.
In all, “it’s a unique way to show how multi-faceted Michelin-star places can be,” Morgan Olszewski says. “It can still be to that high standard but can be approachable in a different way.”
Yugen reopens July 31 in West Loop. Kaisho Grab & Go will be open from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; Kaisho Tiki Takeover will be open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.