Slurping Turtle (Chicago): Slow and steady wins the race when exploring chef Takashi Yagihashi’s extensive izakaya-style menu

Chef-owner Takashi Yagihashi brings Japanese izakaya-inspired eating to River North with an extensive menu of small plates that includes sashimi and grilled bites. Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

People have been racing to Slurping Turtle since this casual eatery from fine-dining pro Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi) opened its doors in November.

Once there, however, I suggest you take it slow.  Real slow.  Provided you can even get into this jam-packed, no-reservations River North destination dining spot.

“My idea is to have an izakaya,” or the Japanese equivalent of a tapas bar, says Takashi.

“That’s one of the izakaya rules — when you go, the menu has to be pretty large.”

And Slurping Turtle’s menu is large indeed.  The idea is that guests will come often and always find something interesting to eat, the chef says.

Takashi serves a handful of noodle and rice entrées for those who want to hang out and get a taste of Japanese home-style cooking. Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

“Before you go home [for the evening], you have a drink and an appetizer or a quick bite,” says Takashi, explaining the izakaya culture.  But for those who prefer to stay, Takashi also added filling, home-style Japanese noodle and rice dishes to his comprehensive list of sashimi, dumplings, hot tapas and grilled skewers.

And trust me, once you start working on the menu, you aren’t going to want to go anywhere — least of all home.  So pacing is highly recommended.

“For a cold, fresh start,” Takashi offers sashimi.  No sushi, just sashimi.  Because in Japan, authentic izakayas don’t serve sushi, and in Chicago “everybody does sushi,” Takashi says.  “If you want sushi, you can go to a sushi restaurant.”

Although Takashi encourages diners to make their selections in any order they wish, our group started at the top in the “sashimi bar.”

If The Husband spies octopus — or ceviche — on the menu, it’s a given that he’ll go for it.  And so along with good-sport friends Deb and Tom, we were off and running with ceviche ($11).  Takashi gives this Latin-inspired dish a Japanese makeover by tossing fresh baby octopus, Hokkaido scallops, shrimp and squid (along with pear tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and radicchio) with a crisp yuzu and toasted sesame-oil dressing.

A section of the menu is devoted to dumplings and hot tapas such as the glazed pork-belly snack (above). Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

Not particularly in the mood for sashimi, our group moved quickly into Slurping Turtle’s dumplings and hot tapas section, and happily lingered there for a bit.  Sticky and sweet, the finger-licking pork-belly snack ($8) rested atop a marshmallow disc of a bun, and got a well-deserved vinegary kick from its pickled cuke and onion garnish.  Simple shumai ($7), with head-clearing hot mustard, held a delicate ball of minced pork and shrimp inside its soft noodle casing.

“KFC gone wild,” is how Tom, I believe, described duck fat-fried chicken ($7).  Indeed, far better than your average breaded chicken tender, the crispy breaded bites were served with a feisty Sriracha mayonnaise.  We also sampled crispy (on the outside) curry croquettes ($7).  Mildly oniony, their soft mashed-potato centers were outrageously tasty mixed with the accompanying curry mustard and light and crunchy slaw.

Slurping Turtle offers about 30 simply prepared items grilled over bincho charcoal. Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

Then it was bincho time.  Here, Takashi focuses on little items (all manner of chicken parts, fish and seafood, meat, veggies, and even foie gras) that come off his searing-hot bincho charcoal grill.  Takashi doesn’t even bother calling them “small plates.”  “It’s a tiny portion,” he says of the dishes that hover in the $3 to $5 range.  A few offerings, such as quail with quail eggs ($7) or the foie gras ($12), run a bit higher.

Japanese grilled bites have become somewhat trendy around town, with several yakatori-inspired restaurants opening in the last year alone.  But Takashi believes Slurping Turtle distinguishes itself on two counts — in its simplicity of preparation (a splash of teriyaki sauce, a dash of salt and pepper), and with the sheer number of grillable items available (almost 30 during our visit).

“We do very limited sauces, dressings and garnishes, but you can choose many different items,” says Takashi, who believes his competitors offer more — and less — respectively.

We surveyed the landscape and settled on five plates, although numerous other dishes (save the popular hatsu, or chicken hearts) appealed.  All impressed with their ability to stand on their own with little muss or fuss:  eel ($5); Washugyu, a hybrid Black Angus and Wagyu beef ($10); gooey eggplant ($3); juicy trumpet royal mushrooms ($4); and fiery shishito peppers ($3) with a dusting of fishy bonito flakes.

Noodles come in broth or stir-frys, and tan tan men has emerged as one of the eatery's signature dishes. Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

In it for the long haul, we selected two noodle dishes — one broth-based, the other stir-fried. Tan tan men ($14) has quickly become one of the menu’s signature dishes.  It doesn’t hurt that one of the city’s most tear-inducing critics, and I’m paraphrasing here, said she would do almost anything in the name of tan tan men.  While there are many things our group would not do in the name of tan tan men, we all agreed we’d order it again without question.  So much good is going down in this bowl of whole wheat egg noodles and chile-infused miso broth — which also features ground pork, spicy homemade sausage, peapods, bok choy and bean sprouts.

However, not to be overshadowed by tan tan men is chiyan pon ($14), which is one of those savory stir-fried egg noodle dishes you can’t keep your fork — or chopsticks — out of, no matter how you try.  It arrived bursting with shrimp, scallops and vegetables, and I continued poking at it long after I rightfully should have stopped.

With just the tiniest bit of prodding, I enticed a sated Deb and Tom with Takashi’s desserts.  The whimsical list includes Japanese sundaes and the chef’s beloved cream puffs ($3.50), here infused with green tea, vanilla or coconut.

Takashi's roots are in Asian fusion fine dining, as evidenced by his colorful Japanese- flavored dessert macaroons. Photo by Tyllie Barbosa

“Cream puffs are very popular in Japan.  When I was a kid, I was crazy about them,” Takashi says.

We, however, ordered up an assortment of Japanese-flavored macaroons ($1.80 each), a pastry idea the chef borrowed from a French chef who is a friend back in Japan.

The rainbow-colored sandwich cookies were filled with enticing pairings such as raspberry-wasabi, chocolate-sesame and caramel-soy.  And slowly, steadily — and happily — we finished the race.

Slurping Turtle
116 West Hubbard Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

Slurping Turtle on Urbanspoon

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