Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar (Chicago): Chef Chao takes full creative license with his spins on Japanese chow

Chef Chao Thapthimkuna puts his artistic stamp on kushiyaki — Japanese grilled skewers, sushi and more. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

Chao (pronounced “Chow”) Thapthimkuna was just a chef who couldn’t say “no” during his long tenure behind the sushi bar at Chicago’s Sushi Wabi.

And his openness to diners’ special requests — no seaweed nori, no soy sauce, no cucumber, no sesame — sparked this eminently likeable chef’s creativity.  “I hardly said ‘no’ to any customer or any request, and that’s how I grew,” says Chao, who is on a first-name basis with seemingly everyone.

Chao's innovative style was inspired by his customers and their special requests. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

And now the Thai-born chef has put his creative touch on the menu at his new venture, Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar.  Here, Chao and his good buddy, owner Mike Schatzman, have combined Japanese and American flavors, cooking techniques and aesthetics into one loud,* happening River North eatery.

The marriage, however, is not exactly equal, as kushiyaki (Japanese-style skewered and grilled proteins and veggies) and Chao’s visionary sushi are the main attractions.

Chao has taken great care, he says, to ensure that diners find harmony at Union.  And so he offers dishes for the more as well as the less adventurous.  For example, his 12-kushiyaki skewers ($3-$5 per skewer) — which are cooked on a ferociously hot 950-degree open flame robata grill — currently include everything from beef fillet and jumbo shrimp to beef tongue and alligator.

“If you look at the menu and you say there’s nothing you want to eat, I won’t know what to do,” says Chao, shaking his head.

The chef changes traditional dishes by adding imaginative culinary twists. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

Finding something appealing was not a problem for our group of four:  The Husband, friends Lynda and Dino, and me.  A few glasses of sake prevent me from saying precisely how many rounds of Chao’s small plates were ordered, but suffice it to say we were friends with our charming waiter by the end of the evening.

Since we sampled so many dishes that night — and because Chao graciously insisted we eat the food from Fine’s photo shoot — I’m going to give shout-outs to some standouts.

The chef likes “to take the foods that people already know and are familiar with and use different ingredients and different ways to showcase them,” he says.

Exemplifying Chao’s philosophy is the Wagyu beef slider ($5), which falls under “salads + snacks + starters” and bears little resemblance to White Castle’s version.  Chao tops his tiny beef patty with sweet glazed pineapple and a dainty sunny-side up egg and serves it with house-made sweet potato chips and soy-gingery pickled cukes.

Union offers fun and unique starters. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

The Husband and I can’t pass up any dish with mushrooms, so we also ordered the deconstructed underground salad ($6).  The “salad” is more like an artistic arrangement of chewy king mushrooms, pickled radishes, sautéed mountain yams and ground pistachios resting atop brushstrokes of honey-kissed ume plum dressing and a lavish sprinkling of fiery-red beet dust.

I couldn’t keep my chopsticks out of Chao’s satisfying oxtail rice ($4).  Seasoned with oxtail bits, fried shallots, garlic oil and cilantro ($4), the comforting starter is a rich man’s fried rice.

Anxious to try the much-touted skewers, we jumped over “noodles + soups + dumplings” and headed straight for the kushiyaki.

Simply marinated ginger-soy beef fillet ($4) — or as Lynda calls it, “the beef skewer kebab thingy”— was the crowd-pleaser.  But I was most intrigued by prosciutto-wrapped scallop ($5) with its fluffy wasabi-avocado purée, sweet plum sauce and fried ginger.  Curious about that alligator ($4)?  Marinated in garlic-soy and Kirin Light beer, the exotic meat carries the flavors of both land and sea.

Chao works the monstrously hot glass-enclosed robata grill. "They can really die back there," he says of his grilling team. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

Chao carefully portions out the skewers — each is between 1.3 to 1.5 ounces — so diners can pace themselves.  “We don’t want anybody to overeat or to have to take it home,” he says.  “Not too many people take a ‘to go’ bag.”

Which is a good thing, since we had ample room to try Chao’s sushi.

Although Chao does classic sushi, his insanely clever rolls are the real showstoppers. Photo by Kathryn Rolfes

Yes, Chao does classic rolls, nigiri and sashimi.  But we unanimously voted to go with his contemporary four-piece signature “Union Rolls.”

After tasting seven out of nine possibilities, my personal picks include The River North ($6), a smoky, crunchy mix of eel, gobo, red onion and pickled chili nestled in a slightly bitter collard green wrap.  Drizzled with black pepper sauce, the roll left a pleasant afterburn.  Soy paper-wrapped Hokkaido ($6) combines grilled scallop, avocado, roasted pepper, jalapeno and a light masago mayo.  Clifton #4 ($5) comes rolled in a chewy, tortilla-like marble nori and incorporates some of my favorite flavors — fried calamari, masago, green onion, grilled asparagus, and cilantro-garlic mayonnaise.

Fully sated, we skipped over Chao’s full-portioned meat and fish entrées and finished by sharing two desserts.  Served with a warm red bean cookie, chocolate mousse ($7) gets an Asian makeover with the addition of creamy tofu.  Chao also riffs on key lime pie by taking out the lime and adding yuzu, a Japanese citrus. The resulting Killer Yuzu pie ($6) is just that — killer.  Dolloped with fresh whipped cream, the rich flan-like center sits on a coconut biscuit crust.

Suffice it to say that a “to go” bag was not needed.

*Aunt Bee Alert:  Although I enjoyed Union’s eclectic mix of blaring rock and pop music,  your Aunt Bee may not.

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar
230 West Erie Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar on Urbanspoon

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