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Kai Zan

Restaurants, Japanese River West/West Town
4 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(2user reviews)
Photograph: Martha Williams Kai Zan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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. (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.

By: Julia Kramer



Address: 2557 W Chicago Ave

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

Users say (2)

5 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

5 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:0
  • 3 star:0
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I had been waiting for months to finally try this restaurant. We ordered the chef's omakase to share between two of us. They doubled some of the dishes that came with only one piece. From there, we looked at the chef's selection menu and compared what we would like to get a la carte on the menu. It seemed the chef's selection was a selection of the best sellers on their menu. We also ordered a bottle of sake. The nice thing is, if you don't finish the sake, you can take it home with you. After finishing the ten course meal and our a la carte items, we were absolutely stuffed. The ambiance is great, but despite making reservations, they may seat you at the sake bar. We were somewhat upset about this initially, but it was cool to see all the sushi being made in front of us. Some things from the menu I personally recommend are the mussels, the scallop wrapped in salmon, and the carpaccio. 

Definitely worth every penny. One of the better meals I've had in Chicago. 


If you were ever that person that said 'sushi can't get me full' then you haven't ordered the omakase at Kai Zan. Not only is it definitely enough food to get you full, but its all INCREDIBLE. We had an entire sashimi platter basically as a dessert item, with several pieces of 4 different kinds of fish, per person. It is BYOB but if you forgot (why did you forget!?), they have a fabulous sake menu, and several of the waiters are most definitely sake connoisseurs, who will describe the flavors of the options in the most poetic of details. The ambiance is intimate with an almost closed off booth for larger parties, or can still feel intimate when you are sitting near the window and can see the chefs and staff at work; all of whom look like they've at least done a study abroad trip personally in Japan. It is a special occasion place without an overly hefty price tag, with a low-keyish atmosphere with expertly prepared simple and innovative sushi. 

Another side note: if you have someone in your party with a shellfish allergy, or other food restrictions, they can still help to create an omakase menu based on your preferences; which makes this place extra awesome.