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Review: The Food at Chicago’s Yūgen Is Delightful but Sometimes Overwrought

Mari Katsumura was walking down West Randolph Street in Chicago’s restaurant-jammed West Loop on her way home from work and at a crossroads in her career. She was the pastry chef and savory sous chef at a forgettable restaurant called Gideon Sweet, “and I decided that it was time to move on,” she remembers. The […]

Mari Katsumura was walking down West Randolph Street in Chicago’s restaurant-jammed West Loop on her way home from work and at a crossroads in her career. She was the pastry chef and savory sous chef at a forgettable restaurant called Gideon Sweet, “and I decided that it was time to move on,” she remembers.

The commute between work and her apartment took her past the grave of Grace, a restaurant ranked three stars by Michelin, which abruptly closed in late 2017 when chef Curtis Duffy walked out over an acrimonious dispute with owner Michael Olszewski. Katsumura knew both parties; she had been the opening pastry chef at Grace and worked there for three years. “[Olszewski] was conducting tastings with potential candidates” for Grace’s replacement, Katsumura says. He saw her as she passed, and they started chatting. “And then just by chance I became a candidate.”

Katsumura won the job, her first as an executive chef, and the remaining band members fell into place: from the acclaimed Smyth and the Loyalist up the street, Jeanine Lamadieu on pastry; Olivia Noren, a sommelier from Le Bernardin in New York, on beverage; and MBA Morgan Olszewski, Michael’s daughter, on general manager duties. Where once was Grace now is Yūgen, an ambitious restaurant named after the Japanese concept of awareness of the universe’s infinite beauty and mystery and our ability, as mere mortals, to comprehend it. Heady business.

At the restaurant, they don’t take the name super literally. “We adapted the definition to our own meaning of the harmony between food and ambiance and service, kind of bringing nature inward,” Katsumura says, noting the dark oak tabletops in lieu of Grace’s white cloths and the shaggy living wall by the glassed-in kitchen. The dining room—which has the slick, monotone good looks of a first-class airplane cabin—rebuffs these overtures. It’s not moving anyone to pen an existential poem about nature.

On the upside, the $1,000-a-pop buttercream bucket chairs inherited from Grace are crazy comfortable, which is key when you’re settling in for 10 courses ($205). (A condensed five-course menu is offered, as well, for $110.) And unlike the design, the food at Yūgen does have the ability to make your brain swell and skin prickle: a quivering Satori oyster in the sheerest tempura bodysuit; a marshmallow-like cube of sweet-pea-and-tofu soufflé floating in miso consommé of astounding clarity; pristine kanpachi sashimi flavored with lemonade-like sweetness of candied Buddha’s Hand. All elements from the opening courses, these start the meal on a strong footing.

Family Circle

Katsumura grew up in her parents’ restaurant, Yoshi’s Café, in Lakeview. Her French-trained father, Yoshi, is “widely considered the progenitor of fusion in Chicago, melding Asian ingredients with European techniques,” food writer Kevin Pang wrote in a 2011 story in the Chicago Tribune. A 1985 review of Yoshi’s in the same paper mentions dishes like grilled beef tenderloin in gingered Zinfandel sauce and cookie-crusted Japanese pear tart with raspberry puree.

In the early 1990s, Yoshi dropped much of the French pretense and added neighborhood-friendly items like crab wontons, tofu steak, and a Wagyu burger. Topped with choice of cheese, a panko-crusted fried green tomato, Asian pear jam, tomato-pickle aioli, truffle oil, and arugula, that burger was named the best in town in 2012 at the city’s annual food and wine festival. It’s still on the menu at the café, which Katsumura’s mother, Nobuko, has continued to operate after Yoshi’s passing in 2015.

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