Traditional Japanese sushi is a true art. If you’ve seen the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” then you know that it takes years of training to master the steps needed for perfection. Jiro Ono’s restaurant, located inconspicuously in a Tokyo train station, has three Michelin stars, yet he says he is still learning.
The sushi that most Americans are used to is drastically different from traditional Japanese sushi. Japanese chefs use virtually none of the crunchy, cheesy additions that we are used to; it is just rice and fish. But to say “just” completely undermines the care that goes into each roll. The rice must be warmed to an exact temperature and tossed in the correct balance of vinegar; the fish must be of a specific freshness and cut.
The break from this tradition in America has drawn mixed reviews from many sushi purists. But that doesn’t change the fact that many Americanized rolls are delicious in their own right; it’s just a different kind of delicious than would be found in Ono’s kitchen. As such, it is a different kind of art than the nuanced simplicity of traditional nigiri, with dramatic, colorful designs and flowery extras.
Both types are beautiful to behold, but since it’s a very long flight to Tokyo, here are some of the most artistic (and delicious!) rolls in the Chicago area.
Pot River at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill
They call this a “jumbo roll,” and they aren’t kidding around. This baby is packed with tuna, salmon, jalapeño and all kinds of extra goodies. Every roll is exquisitely made, and the chef delivers a dazzling presentation by decorating each platter with a creative design made out of colorful mayo and eel sauce. 1751 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 312-666-4100
Blackhawks Roll at Rock Wrap & Roll
In celebration of Chicago’s NHL win this summer, this tiny but trendy sushi joint near DePaul University created a roll that comes decorated with the full iconic profile of the Hawks’ logo. The roll itself, with black rice, shrimp tempura, smoked salmon and tobiko, is perfect for adventurous and spirited sushi eaters. 2187 N. Clybourn Ave., Chicago, 773-472-2800
Dressed Sashimi at Coast
Sashimi can be boring. Sashimi can be poorly cut fish folded to look nice and slapped on a plate. This sashimi is neither of those sub-par substitutes. In this knockout dish, the chefs at Coast take six different types of seafood, four raw and two cooked, and dress them each in their own distinct marinade. Coast’s sashimi doesn’t need any crazy designs or toppings; it’s art in itself. Even Jiro might agree. 2545 Prairie Ave., Evanston, 847-328-2221
White Dragon at Badaya Sushi
Have you seen the drawing in “Calvin and Hobbes” that Calvin titles “Polar Bear Blinking in a Blizzard”? That’s what this roll reminds me of: pure white, with a little color in the center. Elegant, no frills and still delicious. 600 Central Ave. #100, Highland Park, 847-266-7302
Wagyu Beef Carpaccio at Japonais by Morimoto
Although Carpaccio is an Italian word referring to any meat or fish sliced thin and served raw, this dish perfectly mirrors Japanese sashimi. What makes it so special is the sauce in which it is served—a soy, garlic and ginger mixture that you want to eat with a spoon after you’ve devoured the meat. 600 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 312-822-9600