Sushi bars, the hallowed haunt of the SUV and set, are about a dime a dozen in Chicago these days. It doesn't take a whole lot of hunting (or driving) to enjoy all the sushi you could ever want.
But when Maki Sushi opened in downtown Park Ridge last year, it came as quite a surprise. Park Ridge is a tough restaurant town. I am of a mind that if you can make it in Park Ridge, you can make it anywhere. It appears that Maki Sushi is making it big. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if another Maki Sushi made its way into, say, Wicker Park or Bucktown (the twin peaks of Sushidom).
The reason Maki Sushi is doing great is that it has style, and the food is quite good. The extensive, well-thought-out menu has all that one would want from a sushi bar.
Also, Maki Sushi is slick. The decor is from the minimalist school of less is better, but with important features like the striking and graceful murals on the walls and the centerpiece sushi bar, everything comes together in a very pleasing way. The hard surfaces of the restaurant are in direct contrast to the "softness" and elegance of the food. Presentations are picture perfect, and, when it comes to sushi, a good show goes a long way toward the ultimate enjoyment.
The menu is sectioned quite sensibly. Salads, hot appetizers, noodles, main entrees (which come with miso soup and rice), sushi nigiri, sushi dinners, maki and special maki. Also, there is a children's menu (for ages 8 and under), so get the kids into the act if you want to. Tempura, udon (noodle soup), beginner sushi and a kids' platter round out the kids menu choices.
But let's be adult about this. Start with a couple of simple appetizers: edamame and gome ae. Edamame is simply boiled soybeans. The whole pod, that is. Served hot and lightly salted (I like them almost as much as popcorn), these are some kind of mean beans. To eat, bite into the middle of the pod with your front teeth and drag the pod, causing it to burst open, tossing the beans into your mouth. Actually, a lot more fun than popcorn.
Gome ae is the complete opposite of edamame. A tangle of boiled spinach gets laced with sesame seeds and a silky sesame sauce that slides over just a bit to the sweet side. Not an epicurean delight, but enjoyable all the same.
Not substantial enough, you say? Fine. How about a salad? Shrimp sunomuno. Three large, perfectly cooked shrimp are put together with cucumber, seaweed, and sesame seeds. A very light (almost too light) vinegar-based dressing adds the necessary moisture.
When was the last time you had sukiyaki? A kissing cousin to shabu-shabu, sukiyaki is actually a soy-based stew (stir-fried, then simmered) loaded with color, texture and flavor. Maki Sushi's version includes noodles (vermicelli), thin cuttings of beef, cabbage, carrots, scallions and mushrooms. You might also call this a "meal in a pot," because at 10 bucks it gives a lot. Quite delicious.
Under the "Main Entrees" heading, I managed to work in chicken teriyaki (steak and salmon teriyaki also are available). Nicely grilled, the chicken breast was moist, tender, in perfect slices and framed with angel hair cuttings of root vegetables. The presentation was beautiful, but the idea behind teriyaki is the sauce, which is made up of sake, mirin (a sweet wine) and dark soy.
Sushi is the mainstay of the menu at Maki Sushi and "sushi nigiri," or fish over rice, is where the fun begins. Two dozen possibilities complete the sushi part of the menu, so you will not go wanting. Two pieces to an order, and with prices ranging from $3 to $6, you can spend what you want. I suppose I spent something like 15 bucks in all on the sushi nigiri. I had to have hamachi (yellowtail), simply because I love the rich and buttery flavor of this member of the tuna family. I am also a fan of hirame (flounder), which is less oily than the hamachi and has a mild flavor.
My other choice was unagi (freshwater eel). The flavor of unagi is reminiscent of smoked trout, and being a lover of smoked trout, I find eel a good substitute.
If the idea of fishing out your pleasure from the sushi nigiri selection is a bit more than you want to deal with, then look to the "sushi dinners." Here you go with the "chef's selection; no substitutions." Choices include seven, nine, or 12 pieces of assorted fish. Some over rice, some not, and all a bit pricey (up to $19).
Possibly a better and less-expensive approach would be to do a selection of maki, which is rolled sushi (rolled with rice, or nigiri, with an outer wrap of seaweed). Each serving includes six pieces (sometimes more), and the ease of eating and enjoyment is very high. For a simple beginning, the "avocado" would work just fine.
To zip it up a bit, the "peachy" would be my choice. The essentials here are eel, smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado. If that sounds like an unholy alliance, think again. Harmony of texture, flavor and taste reigns supreme.
For something special, the "Chef's Special Maki" is the dish. I could not resist the one called "Godzilla" (aptly named, as it turned out). This has to be the king of the monster makis (but definitely a lot prettier than its name), and so artfully presented that it took me a minute or so to attack it. This serpentine arrangement of maki and tempura included shrimp, eel, avocado, cucumber, a bevy of vegetable tempura, a spicy mayo and an eel sauce. It was a delight with every bite. And to cap it off, the maki was topped with the pleasing crispness of red and black tobiko (the roe of flying fish). It's worth the $17 price.
The dessert to have is mochi, a small flavored bun or cake made from steamed glutinous rice. The flavor--green tea, mango, chocolate, etc.--is inside the cake. Pick it up and pop it in your mouth. It melts away and the enjoyment is topnotch.
There is a peacefulness about this place that I find very enjoyable. And within the confines of this peaceful space, the rectangular sushi bar serves as an oasis of enjoyment. Service is efficient and pleasant in every way. Reservations are accepted for five or more. Sake is served warmed or cold, and the selection is extensive (prices start at around $6).
IN A BITE:
A class-act sushi bar. The extensive menu offers a wide range of sushi in various styles (maki, nigiri, sushi dinners). However, if your tastes do not run to sushi, there are pleasing options such as sukiyaki, teriyaki, tempura and a fine selection of noodle dishes.
Pat Bruno is a free-lance writer, critic and author.
This sushi restaurant is located in Park Ridge, but given its fashionable art deco decor, exposed brick walls and wood floors, it could just as well be downtown Chicago or New York. Standouts include the tempura shrimp-stuffed dragon roll, crazy crunch roll with tuna, salmon, yellow tail, cucumber, avocado, spicy ginger, tempura, and red tobiko on the outside, and the godzilla roll with spicy mayo, red, black orange and green tobiko, tempura shrimp, unagi, cucumber, tempura crunchies, avocado, and unagi sauce. Those not in the mood for sushi can indulge in a wide array of not-very-Japanese-sounding specials ($15-$23 with soup or salad), including a grilled NY strip steak with teriyaki sauce and fresh vegetables with miso soup and rice and a tempura entree with shrimp and vegetable tempura served with homemade dipping sauce . A special children's sushi platter features mostly cooked rolls and a few small pieces of raw fish. The restaurant also has over 25 different martini specials and a wine cellar and lounge downstairs.