Going from executive chef at one of the world’s most recognized fine-dining establishments to the owner of a Japanese street food-inspired storefront isn’t the most obvious of career moves.
But it made total sense to chef Matthias Merges, who left Charlie Trotter’s after 14 years of service to launch Yusho, a casual yakitori eatery in Logan Square.
Opening a high-end restaurant “would have been taking the easy route,” Merges says. “That would have been segueing in from something you know to something you know.”
With this new solo venture, Merges wanted his work to be fun and personally challenging.
“The more you refine cuisine, you get yourself into a narrow, narrow niche where it’s difficult to explore food in a greater context,” he says. Moving away from the constraints of fine dining, Merges now has the freedom to put his own creative imprint on one of his very favorite cuisines — in any manner he desires.
The chef relates to Japanese culinary philosophy, which focuses on seasonality and product purity. “It resonates much closer to me than any other cuisine,” he says.
Still, he isn’t producing Japanese food per se. Yes, he showcases Asian flavors and uses Japanese grilling techniques — the restaurant has charcoal and gas yakitori grills as well as a conventional one. But you won’t necessarily find Merges’ grilled duck confit or foie gras, for example, on the streets of Kyoto.
And the chef decided to forgo sushi altogether. So don’t drop in expecting to order fatty tuna nigiri or dragon rolls. Instead, he offers a highly focused menu of grilled proteins, seasonal fruits and vegetables “done with great craft and technique.” Merges ideas are “always product driven,” he says. “If we went to the market and saw a great oxtail, we’d build upon that.”
Merges also wanted to draw residents of Logan Square’s diverse community and create a true neighborhood-style eatery, so he made the restaurant highly affordable. “There are no $2,000 bottles of wine here,” he says.
“There’s no reason why a family or a person who is a public employee can’t come in and get the same attention to service, food, beverage and environment as at Trotter’s.”
During our visit, Merges was offering 26 different grilled items ranging from $3.25 to $18, with several plates priced under $6.
Our group – Kit, Keith, The Husband and I – managed to try 11 dishes (13 if you count dessert), which I later learned was a bit wimpy for two couples. According to Merges, the average four top makes it through the entire menu, while two people generally cover 60 percent. Still, I was fully satisfied and sated by what we sampled.
Among our selections were grilled oysters ($3.25 each). As a person with “raw oyster issues,” I was thrilled to see a cooked version of this ubiquitous shellfish on the menu. The oysters retained their brininess and paired well with a dash of sake and sweet apple cider.
Grilled tofu ($4.75) delighted with its surprising richness and onion-tinged mix of sweet (pineapple) and savory (chrysanthemum, walnut) toppings. After a go on the grill, leeks ($5.25) with tart miso became deliciously caramelized and gooey. A dusting of crispy shallots and marcona almonds added textural contrast.
Short rib steam bun ($6.50) was more sandwich-like than expected. But we liked Merges’ interpretation where discs of sweet bun dough enveloped tender barbecued shredded beef, slightly spicy bok choy kimchi and crunchy crushed peanuts. Succulent pork belly ($9) arrived adorned with kimchi, sweet black garlic and tart sunchoke.
Also popular with our group was eel ($7.50) with creamy brandade, hominy and zippy wasabi mustard, as well nutty, meaty maitake mushrooms ($10) served with a gelée made from dashi (traditional Japanese soup stock).
Although food adventurer Keith relentlessly encouraged me to keep going, I had to throw in my chopsticks by the time our group got to beef tongue ($9) and sweetbreads ($9.50). So I had them toss out their opinions to cover for me. The tongue earned a “melt in your mouth tender,” while the sweetbreads were described as “delicate and not at all organy.”
Somehow I rallied for desserts, of which Merges offers two — house-made mochi ($6) and soft-serve ice cream ($5). The doughy mochi balls were filled with two different creamy combos: hazelnut and milk chocolate and citrusy kalamansi and peanuts. The featured soft serve was a sundae of vanilla ice cream, buckwheat caramel sauce and crystallized ginger accompanied by a delicious-on-its-own green tea waffle cone.
Okay, so according to my calculations we made it through only 46 percent of the menu. All the more reason return to Yusho.
2853 North Kedzie Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60618