It has been a hard, crushing week for me, accepting that Obama is not in the White House anymore and that Agent Orange is. On a happy note, I was very lucky to be included in a friends and family night, a last test run before opening, at Kitsune, the new Japanese Pub and Restaurant created by Chef Iliana Regan of Elizabeth Restaurant in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago.
I expressed this sentiment at dinner but a huge note of congratulations has to go out to Chef Iliana Regan and her team. Chef Regan is an incredibly talented chef but there are so many details and papers to be signed and permits in opening a restaurant in Chicago and an independent one at that, that it takes a lot of fortitude, dedication and multi-tasking to make it happen!
It is very fitting that Chef Regan’s next venture is Japanese food from a Midwesterner’s point of view. I don’t profess to be an expert on Japan or Japanese food. I can only go by my impressions from a 6-month stint at school in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, in the dark ages, pre-2000.
The school was 3 hours by train, northwest of Tokyo, built in the middle of rice fields but surrounded by mountains. In my free time, I went on biking adventures up the neighboring mountain, Mt. Hakkaisan in search of the Shinto shrine with the best buckwheat noodles. I found Japan to be a country of incredible contrasts, the beautiful countryside and then the mind-boggling, jam-packed Tokyo that seemed to have as many people and things as humanly possible crammed into the smallish of spaces.
The food I ate at school was Japanese cafeteria food. Sushi was nowhere to be found and noodles were my go to. Vegetables were most widely available as meat was more a luxury item. I think as westerners we are slowly beginning to give vegetables more of a role on the plate. At her restaurant Elizabeth, and at Bunny, vegetables have always had a huge role on the plate.
I was exposed to Shintoism, the national religion of Japan and saw how it connects the Japanese to nature. The shrines in the mountains surrounding my school were to acknowledge the local spirit of the woods and mountains. The Japanese I found, be it growing rice or the mountains, had an appreciation and respect for the natural world. I saw an attention to the details of presentation, be it the meal at a local onsen or the beautiful plating of the meal in a ryokan. It is fitting that Chef Regan’s next venture is a Japanese restaurant, given her respect for and knowledge of the natural world and her use of foraged products, sustainably grown vegetables and organic foods in her dishes as well as her thoughtfulness and eye for beauty on the plate.
The restaurant’s website gives the backstory, it is named for the red fox of Hokkaido. The mythological spirit fox has magical powers and is a shapeshifter morphing into beautiful women, young girls, and elderly men. The restaurant focuses on the Midwestern bounty, influenced by home-style Japanese cuisine. The menus will change with the seasons and intentionally focus on the purity of ingredients from local farmers and gardens. The basis of their mission begins with sustainable cuisine, dedicated to earth consciousness and from there, expands. They use nearly all of their ingredients in their entirety from root to leaf and head to tail. (from their website).
Research for Kitsune included sending Chef Justin Behlke to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. At dinner, Chef Behlke described how he was in awe of the detail of the food presented and the knife skills that he saw in Osaka and Kyoto. His story brought to my mind visions of the painstaking, obsessive process, the character Hattori Hanzo took in creating his special sword in the movie Kill Bill.
One of Chef Regan’s many talents is her knowledge, endless testing and experimentation in her use of fermented foods in the plates. Fermented items to the smallest degree appear in her dishes in many different forms, powder, liquid and paste, adding flavor. The broths that Regan and Behlke create are full of umami goodness. A bowl of noodles is really all about the broth. I was a huge fan of the mushroom broth that was served at Bunny. Rice is to Japan as bread is to the US. Their bread which is another item that both Chefs Regan and Behlke continue to experiment with and evolve in making, is a meal in itself.
Below are a few pictures from my dinner. The atmosphere is relaxed much like the loved but short-lived Bunny in Lakeview. The prices are reasonable it is just reservations that will be hard to secure for a while until they expand their hours to brunch and lunch. Kitsune really has the atmosphere of a low key neighborhood place.
The Friends and Family night was BYOB due to a paperwork glitch. Thanks to Craig Perman’s suggestion I brought a Domaine Chignard Beaujolais Cru Fleurie for red and an Aphros Vinho Verde Loureiro for white which worked wonderfully. I look forward to Beverage Director Chris Crispino’s wine pairing suggestions the next time I visit.
Here a link to the current menu at Kitsune. The space is tiny but cozy. I loved these tiny bunny chopstick holders.
The bread plate, pickled vegetables along with tiny butterpats of Kitsunes.
Tonkotsu ramen, egg, pork belly, house chili sauce, green onion and burnt miso vegan ramen with vegetable garnishes.
Okonomiyaki with pickled ginger and katsobushi. Okonomiyaki is similar to a stuffed pancake in this case filled with finely cut vegetables. This can be shared definitely by 2 even by 4 depending on what else you are having. The plate arrives at the table looking like it is a living organism as the very light and wispy, katsuobushi (bonito flakes) wave with the slightest air movement as if the plate is alive. I was a bit skeptical at how it would taste. We sliced it into wedges and it was delicious, full of vegetable and umami flavors.
Sweet potato, yogurt, and Satsuma granita. We were told this was the current seasonal offering but that the sweets would switch around over time. The combination of sweet, sour, crisp, tart was incredibly refreshing and not filling but still hit that sweet spot
The doughnuts, a Japanese whiskey glazed doughnut are a meal to themselves. These are not your everyday doughnuts, they are so much more!
From what I understand, Kitsune is booked up several months in advance but they have a tiny counter where a few seats will be available for walk-in. They plan to open for lunch as well in March.
The prices are reasonable and the plates are really good. I will definitely be back.