The only thing more beautiful than the whitefish carpaccio at Ai is the chirashi: raw fish splayed out over rice in arrangements that are so bright and vibrant they conjure up images of fireworks. And the only thing that looks better than the chirashi is the maki, wrapped in colors so rich they look as if they were hand-painted. And the only thing more gorgeous than that? Well, it depends on what you order, because every dish here seems to outdo the one that came before it.
But putting out pretty food is not the only way in which chef Toyoji Hemmi considers himself an artist. Also the chef at Ringo and Tsuki, he’s built a reputation for himself as a kind of arbiter of creative sushi joints, gaining acclaim (or at least notoriety) for signature dishes like his (somewhat questionable) Parmesan salmon teriyaki. Like most artists’ creations, his stuff isn’t for everybody. And he creates a masterpiece only every once in a while.
One such masterpiece is the relatively simple ebi shiogama yaki (shrimp baked in salt). When the server breaks open the salt crust at the table, the air fills with wafts of rosemary-scented steam; the shrimp, juicy and plump, also pick up the salty, herbal notes. Hemmi’s whitefish carpaccio is likewise simple yet inspired: The triangles of cool hamachi(or whichever whitefish Hemmi uses that night) are steeped in a citrus sauce heightened by fiery slivers of jalapeño. It’s a clean, balanced dish—so long as you don’t get a mouthful of chiles.
But Hemmi is not always so successful. Take, for instance, his spicy rainbow pine nut tuna roll; it has two notes, one nutty, the other an incremental heat, but neither is interesting enough to warrant the $16 price tag. Likewise, his “scorpion roll,” whose centerpiece is fried calamari, had such a rubbery consistency it was difficult to chew. And of the fish splayed out in the aforementioned chirashi, only half of it gave off that ethereal sushi experience, that moment when the flesh melts and, for a split second, you can taste the purity of the sea. Unfortunately, the other half was—like a handful of the creations—look, but don’t touch.
|Venue name:||Ai [Closed]||Contact:|
358 W Ontario St
|Cross street:||between Orleans and Kingsbury Sts|
|Opening hours:||Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner|
|Transport:||El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Chicago. Bus: 65, 125.|
|Price:||Average nigiri: $3.50|
|Do you own this business?|