1/18/2013 11:35:00 AM

First Look: Fire and Fancy Ice at the Now Open Sumi Robata Bar

Chef Gene Kato, most known for his Riverside restaurant, Japonais, that brings diners all the way from the furthest suburbs for Japanese fare, opened his more refined project last night. Sumi Robata Bar and Charcoal Bar are the first two of three new concepts in the three-story, River North space. The restaurant is built with an attention to details, from the type of charcoal used in the grills to carefully carved ice in cocktails. It is an elegant endeavor, from the food to the service that should bring a new level of class to the neighborhood.

Food: Those who like small plates will love the ordering process at Sumi. The menu is divided into hot and cold appetizers as well as options for grilling. Start a meal with some chilled tofu with caviar and crispy ginger or Chilean sea bass with soy butter sauce over steamed bamboo, before choosing from the two dozen items that can be thrown on the robata. The robata grill is fueled with white oak charcoal, a material that can be heated so hot that it wont produce a flame just a glowing ember used to cook shihito peppers, king crab, Wagyu ribeye and duck breast. The result is meats with crispy outsides and juicy centers, succulent seafood and vegetables infused with a smoky aroma.

Drinks: For the true Japanese drinking experience, head downstairs to the first-come, first-serve Charcoal Bar. The bar, which seats 12, will be the only place to get their specialty cocktails. Beer and sake are on the beverage menu upstairs as well as four pre-bottled cocktails. They include the Roshi with shochu, green tea, coconut-lemongrass and lemon as well as The Sad Flute with bourbon, ginger, yuzu and grapefruit. The more labor-intensive Charcoal Bar cocktails use hand carved ice, Japanese whiskey and other select ingredients such as cloudberries. Aside from quality ingredients, the tools at bartender Matthew Lipsky’s disposal include gold picks, delicate glassware, and hand-blown Japanese bitters bottles.

D├ęcor: Inspired entirely by the name itself, Sumi, which is the Japanese word for charcoal, is deigned around the process used to make it. The 30-seat dining room does have a very natural feel, but is also reminiscent of an Aspen ski resort with wood paneling and white walls. Wood represents the raw materials to make charcoal. A window overlooks the Zen garden, which in summer will offer a patio as well as a view of stone art (it’s too cold to rake the stone that have frozen together). Fire, in the form of the cooking method used for much of the preparation, is contained in a glass encased robata grill. Other tranquil elements include flower-covered stools at the bar and minimalistic art made from pieces of charcoal.

Details: 702 N. Wells St.; 312-988-7864


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