I'm assuming — hoping, really — that Jason Chan is running out of challenges.
The restaurateur, who battled throat cancer to open Juno (which quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in town, and clearly one of the two or three best restaurants to open in 2013), watched helplessly as an upstairs apartment fire in January knocked his fledgling restaurant out of commission, then endured nearly eight months of rebuilding (Chan wryly noted the date on which Juno had been closed longer than it had been open) before unveiling the new Juno in mid-September.
This guy has earned a few years of boredom, don't you think?
For those who had gotten into Juno the first time around, Juno 2.0 will not be a visual revelation. The front room, the only area directly affected by fire, has been redone; it's still a very simple space, just a bit more coherent, outfitted with a lowered-height bar for pre- or post-dinner cocktails. The main dining area is exactly as before, a soaring space of white walls and natural-wood tables, and the long, onyx-trimmed sushi bar.
(Nearly all of the fire and consequent water damage occurred in the basement, home to the prep area and all those boring mechanicals — electric, plumbing, heating and ventilation — that allow a restaurant to function.)
What has changed is the menu: Chan and his partner, sushi master B.K. Park, took the involuntary sabbatical to look at their creation with fresh eyes ("We had the opportunity to make things better," says Chan, a glass-half-full guy if ever there were one) and devised a more tightly focused menu that makes the best use of Chan's artistry and creativity. And they piped aboard Sam McDermott, a former underground chef (Buttermilk Social, Buttermilk Bento) who also logged seven months cooking at Elizabeth, to run the hot side of the kitchen.
Some standbys remain, such as Park's smoked sashimi, which arrives to the table under a glass dome filled with applewood smoke; the smoke doesn't insinuate itself into the fish excessively, but the rising aroma has the effect of fully engaging the diner. You'll be happy with the plump oysters, anointed with beet and passion fruit juices or yuzu, wasabi and Moroccan-spice foam, and the uni shooters, single-shot pieces of sea urchin with orange zest and wasabi caviar.
New to the mix are Park's special king (akami-wrapped crab) and queen nigiri (salmon-wrapped scallop), both with crunchy-potato toppings and good jolts of spice, and a trio of freshwater and sea eels. The freshwater eel is much like every seared unagi you've had, but the subtly poached and seasoned sea eels (shiro anago and aka anago) are revelations. It's never a bad idea to place the evening in Park's hands, whether by ordering the beautifully presented chef's choice sashimi or nigiri assortments, or by reserving a seat at the chef's choice omakase table (this requires two days' notice).
The hot side of the menu is not yet a strength — nor was it in Juno's first iteration — but McDermott gives us reason to hope. His October menu included a couple of bad ideas, chiefly a disastrous gyoza and pastrami on rye mashup, and soba noodles with a chalky walnut sauce. But his November offerings show dramatic improvement; the takoyaki octopus puffs have the light texture they lacked a month ago, and the chef makes a chawan mushi, the savory custard bolstered by matsutake, truffle and gelatinized pearls of concentrated shrimp, served in an artfully jagged eggshell.
McDermott really shines with his "deer" plate, an audience participation dish in which raw venison cuts are cooked, shabu-shabu style, by swishing them in a pot of murky, mushroom-rich broth. What makes the dish particularly interesting is McDermott's sushi chef approach to the butchery; the meats are presented in varying thicknesses, providing a range of mouthfeels and flavor concentrations.
Desserts, also under McDermott's care, are bold and beautiful. Beautiful describes the pine ice cream with shards of mango meringue; the pine presence is more subtle than one might expect, and the mango presence surprisingly forceful, and it's a lovely little sweet. The bold, by which I mean "requiring boldness on the diner's part," is the koji-miso brownie, which gets its not-quite-chocolate flavor from a mix of beets, bananas and pig's blood (that's not a typo) and is topped with koji ice cream, which has a funky, fermented malt flavor. If the idea of the dessert doesn't make you run for the door, you just might enjoy it.
The occasional overreach aside, Juno is back as one of Chicago's very best Japanese restaurants, and let's hope it gets to stay put for a while. For Chan, rapidly becoming the Chicago dining scene's icon of survival, I wish nothing more pulse-raising in the future than the hectic life of a successful restaurateur.