The challenge Find a traditional Japanese breakfast.
The hunt The best part of my recent stay at a cheap ryokan (old-fashioned inn) in Kyoto was the elaborate (and, at about $10, cheap) traditional breakfast. The meal consisted of a multitude of little dishes served on beautiful tableware: steamed rice, miso soup, sardines, sweet-salty black beans, nori, fish cake and tsukemono pickles, plus a small cauldron of silken tofu and veggies. Naturally, when I returned to Chicago, I hoped to find a Japanese breakfast again.
I’d read that some fancy American hotels that cater to older Japanese travelers still serve the traditional breakfast, so I called the consulate general of Japan’s Mag Mile office. It recommended the Park Hyatt, the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons, but it turns out only the latter’s Allium restaurant still offers the meal, and only with 48-hours notice.
So I turned to the Northwest Suburbs, the center of Chicagoland’s Japanese expat community. But when I called Tori Shin, a notable izakaya in Mount Prospect, owner Toshio “Tony” Kaneko didn’t know of any local places that serve breakfast. A call to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights revealed that the Holiday Inn Express and the Jameson Inn, both a stone’s throw from the supermarket, cater to Japanese visitors with rice and miso soup on their otherwise American breakfast buffets. But rice and soup do not a Japanese breakfast make.
It seemed I’d reached a dead end. But then a friend tipped me off to breakfasts at Sixteen at the Trump Tower and Yoshi’s Café, a Franco-Japanese café in Boystown. Service at Sixteen was impeccable, but the meal of teriyaki-glazed salmon on a bed of tamago, rice, miso soup and house-made tsukemono was underwhelming. The presentation was more Continental than Japanese, the jasmine rice (the wrong variety) was dry, and the soup was almost undrinkably salty. And at a whopping $36, the thrill of getting a big breakfast for a little cash was nonexistent.
The find The version at Yoshi’s(3257 N Halsted St, 773-248-6160) wasn’t much more authentic, but it was far tastier—and, at $17.95, half the price. This time the salmon came topped with tangy sautéed hon-shimeiji mushrooms, the rice was perfectly cooked, the soup was textbook, and there was a side of burdock root braised with soy, ginger and cinnamon. Like at Sixteen, the portions were ample (read: American), not dainty, but it was all served on lovely Japanese ceramic ware, just like the breakfasts I had enjoyed in Japan. The incongruous addition of a pineapple wedge proved that a truly traditional Japanese breakfast still eluded me. But Yoshi’s offers a satisfying approximation.