Ani Ani Sushi

Ani Sushi - A Sake Treasure on Lincoln Avenue

Thursday, July 23, 2015 tgoandco

Ani Sushi is like a sake temple… and it’s time to go to church. The exterior has two glass towers balancing a large ball of cedar leaves called a sugitama. Tradition has it that the cedar leaves on the ball will start out green but will change color with age. When the ball is brown, it reflects a sign that says the newly prepared sake is ready to drink. Once inside Ani Sushi, the interior carries on the feeling of a sacred space but with out the staginess of a hymnal or kneeling bench. The interior is minimal and in a buttery, pale chrysanthemum yellow. 

The ceiling is vaulted carrying on the interior’s feeling of a sacred shrine. Across the back of the main dining room is a large triptych of a tree. It’s branches stretch across the dining room are carved in a variety of woods. It is very 1950’s mod yet with a traditional sense of feeling. The furniture is equally minimal yet evolves a reverence to nature with craftsmen-like touches. A large dissection of a tree truck graces the South wall with the front end of the restaurant composed completely of glass. The tables maintain the natural feeling some retaining part of their bark. Vintage photographs link the restaurant to its family members: brothers/owners Ty and Troy Fujimura. This is the companion restaurant to their equally lovely Arami. It features the work of Chef Shin Matsuda (of Nomi, Arami, and Slurping Turtle). The images give the place a almost quirky, familial touch that puts one quickly at ease. 

Each place setting at the table is set with a small wooden Masu box. It sits ceremoniously on a napkin and plate. It contains a glass for sake. When sake is poured, it overflows into the box as a symbol of generosity and hospitality. This sets a tone for the restaurant as it is REALLY friendly and VERY welcoming. That is the one of the first things I noticed when entering and it is also the feeling that lingers with you after one leaves. The people working here are wonderfully and graciously kind. It is kind of strange that I would comment on that initially when writing a restaurant review, but that was one of the most interesting factors that remains with this restaurant. The host and staff are very welcoming and unlike many kitchens, chef Shin Matsuda comes out regularly to speak with the guests. He is not flustered, high-strung or full of ego. Instead, he is quite zen and very kind… again, this restaurant has a kindness that permeates the food. That digression aside, let continue with the meal.

If you haven’t had sake or are clueless about it, the menu leads you though. The sake menu is really large but is categorized by flavor profile; Clean/pure, Fragrant/floral, Rich/classic and Specialty. This helps significantly as you are sorting through it all. The staff is very helpful with walking someone through the selection and they also gave fun notes on sake that I didn’t know. For example: Sake is not like a wine vintage. It does not increase in quality with age. It’s made to be sipped young. It is stored and served chilled and it’s flavor profile will blossom as it warms to room temperature. It’s flavor characteristics will evolve taking on new nuance. It will also keep for a couple of weeks in a fridge should you like to keep it at home. They do a lovely job pairings the sake with the food. The house sake is Ichi No Torii. It has a very subtle flavor and brings out the unami flavors in the food. The food becomes absolutely luscious. And yes, it will blossom as you let it arrive to room temperature. It will become more full body as your taste buds adjust to it’s subtle characteristics.

The wine menu is lovely and thoughtful. Not extensive in the by-the-glass category, what is does offer are excellent glass options that are quiet well paired for the food. There are some specialty house cocktails that are equally powerful and pushy. A Kentucky Kai has bullet rye and roasted tea. It packs a wallop. For the gin drinker, the Lincoln Coupe De Finn is a mixture of gin, jasmine and five-spice liqueur. This is a wonderful side accompaniment to the sashimi. The high points however are very much the sake. Full disclosure: I am normally a tough sell on sake. I have never been a fan. I recommend it highly at it is truly exquisite as this is one of the very rare times that I have had it where it stood up nicely and enhanced the flavors of the food. The house sake is not to be missed and it is a leaping off point to start a meal nicely.

Menu notes: Friendly menu

The menu is extensive – incredibly so. It is a bit overwhelming as there is so much to pick from. They have many, many favorites that are traditional Japanese fare. They also excel in the untraditional. If one is familiar with the Arami-companion restaurant, they will find this more accessible and less pretentious. The food, like the sake menu is categorized by Hot, Cold, Noodle, Robata grill, Temaki, Donburi, Maki Mono, Special Nigiri and Sashimi. As it’s Japanese, you have four kinds of rice to select from. This menu only tells part of the story… and this is where I call this place very kind. There are two more menus. There is a VEGITARIAN AND and VERY EXTENSIVE GLUTEN-FREE menu. These are not just little asterisks on the side of a food column. The variety was so huge, I had to ask about it. The story is this: Chef Shin Matsuda’s sister developed celiac disease on the backside of chemo. He wanted her to feel comfortable in his restaurant thus he formed a menu that is very extensive, offers a lot of variety and has lots of flavor combinations. One doesn’t feel like they are missing out having to eat gluten-free. He developed an equally large menu that is vegetarian. These two menus are complete and unto themselves. The amount of food options at Ani Sushi is extraordinary. That said, it can be hard to decide what to eat especially if you are unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine yet open to try new things. Chef Shin put together yet a fourth menu that is a fabulously extravagant tasting menu that falls into handsomely into 7 courses. I opted for simple and went with that.

Take the taste plunge.

The tasting menu takes the stress out of ordering. One gets a good sampling of sashimi with three samples of the most popular. You can get these off menu by the piece. One of the three sashimi selections is off the special offerings menu. This is the Special Hamachi. The Double Ahi Maki Sushi was a favorite next course. This has spicy tuna, avocado and a spicy mayo with wasabi aioli. It has some heat and is absolutely delicious. It pairs well with the Lincoln Coupe De Finn Gin cocktail.

The chef’s menu comes with a Grilled Ika Salad. The salad has mixed greens with grilled squid, pickled pear, lotus root chips and white wine vinaigrette. It is a light follow up to the Double Ahi Maki. The following course fourth course is a Ahi Poke. This is a raw tuna salad served with aged balsamic vinegar, sesame, scallions garlic and sits on a bed of seaweed. This is perhaps the most esoteric or thought provoking taste course. The flavors are an interesting mix as is perhaps akin to eating the sea. There are many flavors that take command of the palate and they come in waves. The dish is delightfully complex as well as visually appealing. I was not sure I was going to like the brussel sprouts and it turns out I didn’t like them… I LOVE THEM.

They are not soaked with bacon and sugar but are more like a salty snack. They are crisp with togarashi (seven-pice chili pepper) and the house soy. They have the favor of a vegetable chip and you can’t get enough of them. There isn’t a kid alive (or adult) who would not like eating these veggies. They are visually fun as well. The bonito flakes are very thin and cooked at high heat. As they cool, they take on a life of their own and float around on the plate. It is very amusing. The main course is Lemongrass Tori Ramen. This is chicken with fried tofu, shallots and egg along with ramen. This is how ramen is supposed to taste – it’s does NOT harken back to late-night college fare. I know there are many who have sworn off ramen since college. This is not that kind of ramen. It is fresh and healthy. It is not over powered with soy or salt. There is a lot of freshness in the bowl with chunks of chicken and vegetables. It is not heavy but it is substantial. With all the cold weather we have had, it is a blessing. The flavor is rich and dark — almost mushroomy and it has plenty of ramen. Two people can easily share this bowl with an appetizer and feel full. The final course of dessert is Yuzu Kinako Savarin. It is a Yuzu curd or custard  that is served over an almond shortbread. It is accompanied with blueberries and a sesame/white chocolate whip. The dessert is delicately light and finishes off a meal nicely without being icky sweet. Unlike many other sushi meals I have had, I did not go away starving or looking for a burger in a hour. There was substance with flavor. Presentations were lovely with the right amount of “pretty” but not overly concocted.  Most important when eating sushi and sashimi, the fish was very, very fresh.

Special Events and Tastings

Ani Sushi has a second room in the back that is used for private parties, special events and overflow on weekends. That room is more intimate and romantic. It has more subdued lighting along with a couch and room to mingle.  They routinely host sake tastings and special dinners to encourage people to try new things. They have two sake tastings planned for this month. One is in conjunction with Bottle & Bottega. One can have fun sipping sake while showing off their artistic skills. Call for dates, times and tickets.

Ani Sushi can be found at 3056 N Lincoln Avenue in Chicago between Barry & Wellington Avenues on the west side of the street.  Call 872-206-8553 for reservations or for catering your next shindig. You can also go on and use the code ANICHI20 and get 20% off your visit.

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