Kai Zan

Critics' pick
1/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Orange Rush at Kai Zan

2/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Escolar Pearls at Kai Zan

3/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Kai Zan

4/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Orange Rush at Kai Zan

5/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Kai Zan

6/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Flaming Tuna Roll at Kai Zan

7/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Kai Zan

8/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Kai Zan

9/9
Photograph: Martha Williams

Kai Zan

Humboldt Park

There’s nothing to do except come out and say it: There are some things at Kai Zan I can’t describe. I was at the sushi bar, a display of wrapped seafood the only barrier between me and brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde, the chefs and owners. I’d elected to do the omakase menu, a nice value at $50 a person, made more so by the restaurant’s BYOB policy. (There is a $5-per-table corkage fee.) The only hiccup: Most of the food was handed across the bar in rapid fire and without explanation.

It started with the “pearls”: bites of gently seared maguro (fresh tuna) arranged atop spheres of rice, with wasabi sauce and chili oil binding the elements. There were one-bite “rolls” of salmon-wrapped scallops (called “Orange Rush”) and shrimp tempura wrapped in strips of avocado (the “Green Monster”). If these sound a little indulgent, they are. But this is the mystery of Kai Zan: The chefs veer close to excessive but never go anywhere near the grotesque cream-cheese realm that has poisoned many a neighborhood-sushi restaurant. Instead, their creations are positively refined. The Vizcondes are masters of maki; I became merely, and happily, their subject.

And what a territory: This is the sweetest, tiniest restaurant on Earth. The room is seamlessly both contemporary (a video projector screens fish swimming around the floor of the entryway) and traditional (tiny plants and lovely ceramics turn the booths homey). And the service is as unpretentious as it is attentive.

Inquiring minds want to know: Is Kai Zan as good as Arami? It’s…different. At Arami, the now-departed B.K. Park turned raw fish into sculptures. Nothing at Kai Zan is so precious, nor so breathtaking. And though I haven’t had as much of the cooked food at Kai Zan as I have at Arami, the few grilled items I tried (shishito peppers, miso-bathed cauliflower) hadn’t caramelized to the point of intrigue, and a scallop special, though beautifully served in its shell, was full of sand and grit. A seared tuna salad—oil-rich fish on lettuce, pickled onions and cherry tomatoes—wasn’t a knockout like the togarashi-seared tuna at Arami. But to be fair, I didn’t make it to the teppanyaki portion of Kai Zan’s menu, which includes soba noodles and chicken teriyaki: I was too smitten with the sushi.

Which brings me back to the problem that Kai Zan poses to description. Sushi is a paradox: Each piece is so painstakingly presented, yet unlike the thousand-component plates of fancy American restaurants, there is no fiddling around with it, no tasting individual components. You merely transport it into your mouth—a quick, smooth motion if you’re lucky—and experience it. This fleetingness forces the critical mind to let go, to give up the fixation with describing or remembering every detail of every plate. This is what I thought about when, per the chef’s instructions, I stirred a perfect little quail-egg yolk into one of the night’s specials, a bowl of rice, uni and chopped super-fatty tuna, creating a plush, silken mixture, before dolloping it into sheets of nori. To consume this dish was to think of nothing except what a joy—what a true pleasure—it is to eat.

Venue name: Kai Zan
Contact:
Address: 2557 W Chicago Ave
Chicago

Cross street: at Rockwell St
Opening hours: Dinner (closed Wed)
Transport: Bus: 49, 52, 65, 66.
Price: Average sushi roll: $8
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