Like many New Yorkers, I’ve been watching the proliferation of giant upscale Chinese and Japanese restaurants over the past six months and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. With the opening of the 292-seat Japonais in July, I finally noticed one consistent theme: Virtually all are spin-offs.
Megu spawned Megu Midtown, Mr. Chow birthed Mr. Chow Tribeca, Buddha Bar in Paris inspired the one in New York, and Philadelphia’s Morimoto and Buddakan paved the way for Morimoto and Buddakan in the Meatpacking District. (Only Chinatown Brasserie seems to be sui generis.) It’s fitting, therefore, that Japonais is an offshoot of a three-year-old Chicago hot spot.
Two chefs have moved east from the Windy City to share the kitchen of this 11,350-square-foot restaurant: Jun Ichikawa is in charge of sushi, and Gene Kato oversees all hot dishes. Japanese, Chinese and French influences pop up throughout the food, decor and drink menu. Interior designer Jeffrey Beers has installed French doors, a centrally located tree sculpture made of wood and glass and a balcony lounge called the Red Room overlooking the main dining area.
The details are impressive—one brick wall is accented by wrought iron and gold, and the 40-seat outdoor space has the elegance of a Southern veranda—but the place is not always comfortable. The bar, which is the heart of a sexy megarestaurant, can make you feel like you’re in a rugby scrum when it’s packed; patrons, many waiting for tables, squeeze five deep all the way to the wall.
What struck me most, however, was the staff’s surliness. One night, a hostess asked a television-executive friend of mine—dressed casually but in perfectly appropriate attire—whether anyone in her yet-to-arrive party would be wearing flip-flops. Later, when I tried to order a dish from the regular menu while sitting at the bar, I was scolded by a manager who treated me as if I had snuck in food from outside. “You can’t have that here,” she sneered.
Good thing I made it to the dining room: The food can be very good. All the rolls and nigiri I tried were above average; the nori was especially crisp in the two-piece kani nigiri (warm and spicy baked king crab), and I loved the way the “spicy mono” combined not-too-chewy octopus, tuna tartare and sweet eel sauce in the same dish. But you’ll pay for the specials; that crab nigiri costs $10.
I was equally impressed by the cooked offerings, particularly those of Chinese origin. Kato’s giant steamed buns had a rich, slightly sweet stuffing marinated in sake, soy and mirin. And the spring rolls, upgraded to first class, feature bits of lobster, a wonderful mango relish and a tart blood-orange vinaigrette with an elegantly spicy kick.
The most successful dish I tried, “Le Quack Japonais,” is really a fancy version of Peking duck. Rather than serving the usual lean, crackling-skinned version, Japonais offers thick, juicy slices separated into light and dark meat, along with hoisin sauce, scallions and more of that mango relish. I was also impressed with the prehalved pancakes, evidence that someone is truly attempting to create shareable plates.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to share or enjoy each course when all the food arrives at one time; the servers desperately need to work on pacing. While they’re at it, they might want to lose the attitude and study the wine list; one server suggested a wine and then, when pressed, admitted he’d never tried it. Is that how they do it in Chicago?