A restaurant group that includes two Michelin-starred restaurants in California, will bring a 10-seat omakase experience to the former the Swill Inn space in River West. Sushi by Scratch, which holds a single-star rating in Santa Barbara, California, is planning an early February debut for its parent company’s first Midwestern outpost.
Chef Phillip Frankland Lee, who runs Scratch Restaurants Group with his wife Margarita Kallas-Lee, bases his approach to sushi on his experience growing up in the ’90s in LA’s San Fernando Valley, which boasts one of the densest concentrations of sushi restaurants outside of Japan.
“I actually decided when I was 13 that I wanted to be a sushi chef when I grew up, so I started buying books and making sushi at home,” Lee says. “As time went on and as I started putting together the concept for this restaurant, I did a lot of research into not just what omakase is but where it comes from. What are the ideals? What is the tradition?”
Lee took a roundabout path to achieve that dream. He moved to Chicago in 2010 to work with Laurent Gras and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise’s acclaimed L2O and worked briefly with Alinea Group in preparing Next Restaurant’s opening. Lee and his wife opened Scratch Bar in 2013 in Beverly Hills as a tasting menu-only restaurant. Four years later, he turned the office behind the bar into an eight-seat sushi bar.
“I went to my wife and I said, ‘I think I’m ready to do sushi,’ but then I got scared and I was just like, ‘Well, no one’s going to like it. I’m just some young, white kid,” Lee says.
The restaurant had no name, phone number, or website. Customers would show up at 3 p.m. and write their name on one of 24 spots on a chalkboard to reserve a space at one of his three seatings, a system Lee says was inspired by his many nights spent using a quarter to reserve a pool table on the second-floor at Delilah’s, the divey punk rock bar in Lincoln Park. It’s a significantly slicker operation now with Tock handling reservations for Sushi by Scratch’s six locations.
“Our goal is to take this sort of micro restaurant and sort of grow it and grow it and one day become the most starred concept around the country and potentially the world,” Lee says.
Each location serves 17 courses, including six of Lee’s signature dishes such as hamachi painted with sweet corn pudding and sprinkled with crumbs from Kallas-Lee’s sourdough.
“Hamachi is a sweeter fish, so the corn really acts to heighten that sweetness,” Lee says. “It’s a softer fish, so the sourdough adds a little bit of texture on top of it and a yeasty, sour flavor to balance the extra sweetness that you’ve added.”
The opening chefs, who are all promoted internally, work with Lee to design the rest of the menu. For instance, the Montecito chef serves a roasted escolar dish topped with bits of pineapple, serrano, yuzu kosho, lime, and cilantro (it’s inspired by an al pastor taco). While sushi restaurants compete over the quality of their rice and fish, Lee says what often really distinguishes them is the way chefs connect with diners during an intimate meal.
“What was traditional was that the chef would tell the story of their childhood and the neighborhood that they grew up in,” Lee says. “I thought the most truthful thing I could do was not to tell somebody else’s story, but to tell mine based on the flavors that I grew up with.”
Originally ticketed for West Town, Lee’s team quickly switched destinations after finding the Swill Inn space. The bar’s owners hoped to find someone to take over operations of Swill Inn but instead found Sushi by Scratch. Lee’s team has plans for another concept in the larger space but isn’t ready to share details. They’ll make cosmetic changes at Swill Inn in the coming weeks to prepare for the quick transition.
The River West space will work with what Lee has done at other locations where he brings a bit of theatricality to the experience. The space’s windows are covered with curtains and diners are greeted by a placard that says, “Sushi by Scratch Restaurants. Serving omakase by appointment only. Please ring bell for service.” After ringing the buzzer, they’ll be brought into an 18-seat whiskey bar for a welcome cocktail that blends Japanese whiskey, sake, ginger, and lime.
The meal then transitions to the actual sushi bar, which is staffed by three chefs and a bartender. Dinner typically takes about two hours, and if time permits there’s an option to add on a few extra pieces of fish at the end of the $165 meal. A la carte drinks are available along with three beverage pairing options — sake, Japanese whiskey, or a mix of three sakes, two small cocktails, and a beer.
“We actually get to land courses towards the end and the beer is fantastic with some of the roasted meats,” he says. “I have anxiety about looking at a menu and choosing because what if I choose wrong? How do I know? We recommend going on straight autopilot.”
Sushi by Scratch, 415 N. Milwaukee Ave., scheduled to open February 8.