Phil Vettel reviews Arami

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CHICAGO -- Chicago is awash in restaurants one visits strictly for sushi, and then those that handle noodle dishes and other hot items well but where sushi and sashimi are afterthoughts, if they're available at all.

Arami, however, is one of the best-balanced Japanese restaurants in Chicago, a multi-tooled player, much in the manner of Katsu or Momotaro (still the best, in my view), where the sushi bar and hot kitchen both operate at high levels, helped along by a surprisingly thorough beverage program. I hate when waiters tell me that "everything's good," but at Arami, that's pretty much the case and has been for some six years.

Fans fretted when original sushi chef B.K. Park announced his departure in 2013 (later to open Juno in Lincoln Park), but with Ajay Popli (hot kitchen) and Nelson Vinansaca (sushi bar) as co-chefs de cuisine, Arami continued to shine, earning Bib Gourmand designations from the Michelin Guide for the last three years (and five of the last six).

Arami generated unwelcome headlines last month, when a kitchen fire (in the middle of weekend service, no less) caused enough damage to close the restaurant for four weeks. But owner Ty Fujimura made good use of the time.

"Aside from rebuilding the entire hot kitchen, we did some cosmetic refinishing of the floors and tables, did some painting, some landscaping," he said. "You probably wouldn't notice the changes, except for the new floor in the back atrium. But the kitchen is nice and sparkly."

The dining room is pretty sparkly as well, wrapped in natural-tone wood under skylight-filled ceilings and dominated visually by the long sushi bar. Indeed, at first glance the place looks as though it's all about the sushi, but crack open the menu, and you'll see that there's much more going on.

For one thing, Arami has an extraordinary commitment to vegetables. There are seven vegetable sushi options on the menu, served in two-piece nigiri or six-piece maki portions. The shiitake mushroom roll, topped with dabs of tofu dressing, is very good, and the eggplant sushi (nasu), topped with dots of peanut-miso sauce, is one of the menu's highlights.

The robata (grilled skewer) menu heading embraces such treats as blistered shishito peppers, served under a blanket of bonito flakes, and a fist-sized bunch of charcoaled maitake mushrooms, over black-sesame paste and umeboshi (fermented plum) sauce. Meaty robata dishes of note include the foie-stuffed and togarashi-dusted wagyu, and the Berkshire pork belly, lacquered with a gochujang glaze.

Over on the sushi side, a good way to dive in is via the chef's choice platters, either sushi or sashimi or a combination. Generally you'll get a mix of standards (tuna, salmon, yellowtail) and market-driven specials (mackerel, madai, fluke). It's not the most electrifying assortment in the world, but I was impressed particularly by the nigiri and the gentle qualities of the rice — light, slightly sweet and assembled with the barest amount of compaction. This is true of the maki rolls as well

Other items worth your attention are the octopus spring roll, enhanced with spicy mayo, and the torched scallop, kissed with a bit of citrus and served elegantly on a hot rock.

Large dishes are sized to be shared. The signature ramen is loaded with pork belly, grilled enoki mushrooms, fermented vegetables and a barely poached egg; and a relatively new menu item, short rib donburi, plates slow-cooked beef over black rice with roasted carrots. (If you've got a meat-and-potatoes eater in your party, steer him/her to this dish.)

The tiny bar notwithstanding, Arami is a surprisingly good cocktail destination; the very well-made cocktails feature Japanese spirits and bear rather whimsical names. There's the thyme-infused Scarborough Fair, an easy guess, and the more obscure Dock Ellis, a rum-and-amaro concoction named for a Pirates pitcher who pitched a no-hitter in 1970 and claimed he was on LSD at the time. And while I gave up on whiskey sours decades ago, Amari's Akashi sour, made with Japanese whisky, is a drink I'd order again.

Beyond cocktails, there is a lengthy list of high-quality sakes and food- and budget-friendly wines.

It is rare for Japanese restaurants to have a dessert selection worth mentioning, but Arami gets its mochi ice cream bites directly from Bubbies, a legendary dessert-maker in Honolulu. For those who despair of mochi made with bland ice cream and overly gummy wraps, these bites will be a revelation, as will the nontraditional flavors (tiramisu, dark-chocolate strawberry) augmenting the routine green tea and red-bean offerings. Even better is the ice-cream sandwich, actually two sandwiches, made with black-sesame shortbread cookies and salted miso ice cream.

THREE STARS