Last week’s tasting at Naoki was an all around discovery for me. Not just of a Lincoln Park hidden gem, but also an unveiling of the true genius of Lettuce Entertain You’s long time sushi chef, Naoki Nakashima.
Tucked behind the kitchen of another LEYE restaurant Intro, Naoki offers a mix between traditional and contemporary Japanese cuisine served in a semi casual setting. The sushi items are intended to be complex, offering a myriad of flavors and it seems that the drinks have been intentionally created to ensure that they pair well with the sushi.
My tasting with their PR Manager was every bit indulgent, elaborate and also a ton of fun. We were started off with a featured cocktail from their drinks menu called, the Cucumber “Tsukemono.” The drink was a fresh blend of Japanese cucumber, ginger and chile soaking in some vodka, nigori sake and lime. I knew right away we were off to a good start. I would highly recommend this cocktail although I don’t think you can go wrong with your drink choice at Naoki
We began our sushi tasting with the Lobster and Hirame sashimi raw plates. In addition to the artistic presentation, I really enjoyed the way the fish was sliced. Commonly served as tuna or salmon, it was wonderful to see lobster being served sashimi-style. Plus I would’ve never thought that radish could’ve had anything to do with lobster, until I tasted this unique flavor combination. The Hirame (Japanese Halibut) was placed in a delectable mushroom dashi (soup stock), which was smooth and divinely flavorful. Dashi is also known to have healing effects, so there was also something very zen about this dish.
Next on our tasting menu were specialty pieces of Hamachi, Kanpachi and Mackerel. The Hamachi was belly cut so a little fattier than the sashimi we had just had. I was blown away with the marination on all three pieces of fish. We were asked to start with the Hamachi and work our way up to the mackerel, which is known for its overpowering taste. The yuzu koshu and ponzu sheet served with were incredible also. And the big smile on my face would’ve corroborated that!
Throughout our dinner, I had a direct view of the sushi kitchen and watched Chef from time to time. Anytime I looked up, I saw Chef Naoki engrossed in his sushi preparation much like an artist working on his painting. A truly pleasing sight!
Then, I had the pleasure of actually meeting him, as he came over to our table to personally serve us our next course- The Negi Tuna Roll. While I think Chef Naoki is one of the nicest chefs in town, this roll may also be one of the best sushi rolls in the city. The combination of fatty tuna, the Negi (scallion) and the shisho leaf added an exceptionally vibrant taste to the whole dish. Shisho, which belongs to the mint family is unique in his taste as is, and but with the tuna, it did wonders! The Salmon Miso roll with ginger and omelet was also equally impressive.
Chef was kind enough to send out a complimentary Truffle Chawanmushi for us, which is a soup consisting of dashi broth and egg custard mixed together. I’ll be honest that although I’m a truffle addict, I was hesitant to order this on my own for fear of it being too “eggy.” I now think what a travesty it would’ve been to leave Naoki without trying this brilliant culinary creation. The egg had set in steaming but was still silky smooth, while the sake mirin, soy, yuzu, bonito and truffle paste released beautiful flavors into the broth. I can easily see Chawanmushi becoming a winter obsession for me.
There is only one way to end such a phenomenal meal, and that is with dessert. We ordered the highly recommended Cheesecake with the Brulee crust, which, as I had presumed, kept up with the rest of our meal. And I’m glad I snapped pictures at the onset because that cheesecake went fast!
While Chef Naoki’s culinary prowess is apparent in all the food at Naoki, it also helps when food is artfully presented and conscientiously plated like it is at this restaurant. All the fish meat here is cut appropriately to make it relevant to the type of dish being served. What struck me the most was the simplicity that gleamed through every dish despite the intricate ingredients and condiments. Naoki has been on my list for a long time now and my tasting confirmed that good things come to those to wait!
If you haven’t been to Naoki yet, make reservations now!
Neighborhood: Lincoln Park
Address: 2300 N Lincoln Park W, Chicago, IL 60614
Phone: (773) 868-0002
Hours: Mon, Tues: Closed, Weds -Thurs: 5:30pm 9:30pm, Fri -Sat: 5:30pm–10:00am, Sun: 5-10pmPrice: $4 - $34