PHOTOS BY BECCA DILLEY
This review originally appeared in the July 16 edition of the Churn newsletter.
The newly opened Sanjusan in the North Loop promises guests (through its menu, location, and pedigree) an elegant, novel, and thoroughly civilized dining experience. And – a bit to our surprise in a part of the city prone to big talk, big checks, and inconsistent results – that’s precisely what it delivers. The restaurant is a joint project of Daniel del Prado (Martina, Colita, and more) and Shigeyuki Furukawa (Kado No Mise, which has been displaced upstairs at this address by Sanjusan). This Italian-Japanese hybrid concept somehow manages to bridge and blend two polyglot and far-flung cuisines in one surprisingly coherent, confident, tidily presented package and make it look easy to do in the process.
This feat is, it should really be noted, not actually all that easy to do. There have been a generous fistful of times over the years that we’ve tried sleekly packaged fusion concepts and emerged either depressed about the future of humanity or gleefully railing against laundry lists of hilarious culinary misfires, but after eating at Sanjusan we mostly just felt full, happy and well cared for by the restaurant’s attentive staff.
Maybe that was in part due to the initial salvo of cocktails, which, in general, were creatively and competently made. The Hanami ($13, above) seemed reasonably lightweight on paper, mixing gin, sake vermouth, and yuzu to create a remarkably crisp, delicate, sake-forward cocktail that was an ideal match for a warm summer night spent on the restaurant’s patio. But it came with a sidecar, and the two small drinks together packed a real punch. If we’re drinking cocktails, we like to experience actual alcohol, and this drink delivered.
The Tramonto ($12) promised a subtle blend of barley shochu, Campari, cacao, and red vermouth, but the Campari won the fight quite handily, creating a cocktail that leaned too far into the realm of bitter for many (but not all) drinkers at our table. And on a similar note, the Mican ($14) was a confection of gin, mandarin, aperol, and dry curacao that was thoroughly dominated by the mandarin, from the nose to the aftertaste. Unpleasant? Not at all. Unbalanced? A bit.
And the Sanjusan Old Fashioned ($14, blending Iwai 45 whisky, Akashi Ume whisky, nori, kukuto, and umami bitters) looked very formidable with tendrils of seaweed roped around its golf-ball sized designer ice cube, but tasted surprisingly mellow and approachable, lacking either a fierce burn from the whisky or a skunky, briny depth of flavor from the nori. This is no knock – it was a lovely dinner companion, and tasted balanced and full-flavored, if unexpectedly affable.
The drinks set the overall tone for the meal that followed: Japanese- and Italian-inspired techniques and ingredients working thoughtfully alongside one another, often so deftly that it took a careful rereading of the menu to recognize the often ambitious lengths taken to make these dishes a true conversation between equals.
Our meal started with a single delicate piece of A5 Wagyu Nigiri, which promised the world (at $10 for one manageable mouthful of food) but delivered slightly less than that upon receipt. We’d expected the beef to be more buttery, yielding, and ultimately classic nigiri-suggestive, but the admittedly sublime-tasting meat had a fair bit of chew that overwhelmed the more delicate taste and texture sensations of the dish.
A stutter step, perhaps, but nothing that the next course couldn’t fit. The menu’s Basil Arancini ($14) may have been the evening’s highlight, even coming as it did near the head of a flood of good food. Pea shoots and remarkably light and verdant basil offset crunchy-skinned rice balls filled with rich, velvety goodness, a partnership that was highly appetizing and a visual treat.
Sanjusan offers yakitori by the skewer – you can order all the various bits ala carte (such as wings, tenderloin, and even liver if you get to the restaurant early enough, which we sadly didn’t). We tried the thighs ($5), breasts ($4), and meatballs ($5), all of which came accompanied by a tasty mustard-and-togarashi laced pile of pickled veg plus an anemic peanut lime sauce. The fire-kissed char of yakitori can dry out chicken breasts and leave them wanting for flavor, and we were interested to see how the restaurant would dodge this problem; in fact, there was little dodging to be had and the bland-tasting breasts ended up as our least favorite pieces. But the thighs were, as expected, just lovely with a juicy interior richness that was a happy match with their convincingly blackened exterior. The meatballs were quite sausage-like in form and seasoning, and were resoundingly adequate.
We enjoyed the restaurant’s minimalist approach to Shrimp Ravioli ($17), which were positioned squarely in the Italian tradition with their use of Parmesan but then pulled eastward with the inclusion of umami-bombing XO butter. Mellow, delicate, and well balanced, they ultimately resembled, in quite a happy way, shrimp shumai dressed up for a night on the town. Pork Gyoza ($16) were similarly deft and delicate, and the inclusion of a carefully made and really pleasant foie gras-based sauce didn’t particularly weigh them down.
Pizza is no afterthought on the Sanjusan menu. The Isaac Becker ($18) seemed a bit like a dare, with its combination of spicy heat, cilantro, and raw tuna, but damned if it isn’t ultimately a beautiful pie. The heat, earthy herbal kick, and cool richness of the fish acted as a power trio, all supported by a crust that offered ample chew and char.
And while the Verdi ($16, top image) was a bit less dramatic (it combined miso pesto, burrata, walnuts, and Parmesan) it was no less satisfying, with its profound cheesiness set off by the crunch and herbal clarity of the other ingredients.
Considering the location, clientele, and high concept Japan-meets-Italy menu, Sanjusan is surprisingly affordable; even with the inclusion of an automatic 21% service charge, our meal for four (including cocktails, multiple shared appetizers, and one pizza more than we’d initially planned to order) came out to a manageable $60 a head. Frugal diners could probably lean into the pizza and yakitori and have a satisfying dinner for half that cost.
Sanjusan, 33 North First Ave, Main Floor, 5-10pm daily, 612.354.7763