Mari Katsumura says she’s happy to be “back in the game.” For the last few months, Kastsumura has been settling into her job as executive chef at Cherry Circle Room, overseeing Land & Sea Dept.’s within the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel building.
Katsumura sounds optimistic after taking a break from restaurant life. After Yugen, which earned a Michelin star along Randolph Street, deteriorated and she left, Katsumura entered the corporate world with Bon Appétit Management Company working at the Old Post Office.
She enjoyed the opportunity to reset. The Chicago native earned accolades, first as a pastry chef working at Michelin-starred restaurants like Grace, Blackbird, Acadia, and Entente. While she’s returning to the fray she says her mother, Nobuko, is “living her best life.” Her mom closed Yoshi’s Kitchen in December 2021 in Lakeview after a 39-year run. Brother Ken, the restaurant’s chef, is now working for a catering company.
Now Katsumura has the freedom to mold Cherry Circle Room, Game Room, Milk Bar, and Drawing Room (Cindy’s Rooftop is run by Hyatt Hotels). Along with Katsumura, Land & Sea, which also runs Parson’s Chicken & Fish, hired Katsumura’s former Yugen colleague Dan Cha as Cherry Circle’s chef du cuisine. Katsumura isn’t shy about tapping into her childhood memories for inspiration, having grown up on food made by her parents, two Japanese immigrants. She’s already unveiled her version of a Japanese breakfast at Cherry Circle Room. It’s an Americanized version of the food of her childhood. Instead of a whole fish with bones like Yoshi Katsumura served his family, his daughter is giving customers a nice branzino filet with garlic rice. Mari Katsumura was concerned if diners would gravitate toward dried fish in the morning. It’s one of the reasons Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises initially objected to putting a Japanese-style breakfast on the menu at their new restaurant, Miru. Lettuce surprisingly added its own version when Miru opened last week.
Katsumura and Cherry Circle Room’s version of Japanese breakfast has proved popular, accounting for about 70 percent of sales. Another change on the CCR menu is milkbread with whipped ricotta, spring pesto, pickled ramps, and toasted pine nuts.
But beyond breakfast, it’s Katsumura’s job to breathe new energy back into the place as the pandemic deflated much of the excitement: “There hasn’t been a chef prior to really own the space,” Katsumura says.
The Milk Room, now helmed by Sam Perrie, is an intimate space for cocktail and spirit aficionados, is also receiving a little TLC. Katsumura likens her approach to omakase with an array for cone-shaped canapes topped with caviar and roe.
The Drawing Room has breakfast sandwiches and coffee. There’s a menu of pressed sandwiches using focaccia from Aya Pastry, the popular West Town bakery. Katsumura says she wants to gear the space more toward students from the Art Institute and other younger customers who come through during the day. Look for a quiche to be added.
The Game Room was using the Drawing Room’s menu, but Kastumura is working toward giving the space a unique identity. Chicago’s neighborhoods provide the inspiration for Greektown-style veggie gyros, Pilsen-style fish tacos, and a Maxwell Street-style Polish sausage.
Katsumura, who took over pastry responsibilities at Yugen, is also in charge of the pastry programs at CAA. She’s got some tricks up her sleeve but says they will take time to implement.