Phil Vettel reviews Kumiko and Kikko

CHICAGO -- A nondescript corner on Lake Street, just west of the Loop, is home to not one, but two Japanese concepts.

Kumiko is the large restaurant at street level, but we’ll get back to that. First, it’s down the staircase to Kikko, which is a 10-seat counter, in the style of a sushi bar, serving a 12-course menu by chef Mariya Russell. Indeed, one of the big draws of Kikko is the ability to watch Russell at work, up close and personal.

Among the treats you’ll probably experience (the menu does change frequently) are salmon sashimi, brushed with shio koji and topped with a crunchy spice blend that includes puffed salmon skin; and an absolutely gorgeous composition of tofu, topped with green almonds and fried bonito flakes.

Now, dinner at Kikko is more than $100, so keep that in mind. Upstairs, at Kumiko, you won’t spend nearly as much. Here the focus is on Julia Momose’s fascinating, Japan-rooted bar program, where you’ll find drinks such as the Sea Flower, a blend of Japanese gin, vermouth and kosho in a glass rimmed with salt, sugar and nori powder.

There’s food at Kumiko, again by Mariya Russell, but it’s an a la carte menu of a dozen bites, all priced between $3 dollars and $13 dollars. Be sure to try the steamed buns filled with pork belly, or short rib or braised shiitake mushroom. Keep an eye out also for the tempura prawns, which are quite good, and sweetbreads prepared katsu style , which is to say thin sliced, fried and served with sweet and sour sauce. The $13 splurge is the temaki, a hand roll of sea urchin, smoked soy and furikake.

Upstairs or down, your dessert will be Japanese milk bread; the bread is toasted with a torch, and topped with fermented honey ice cream and fresh black truffle. It’s like the world’s greatest French toast.

I give Kumiko and Kikko, together at 630 West Lake Street, three stars. This is a creative, exhilarating dining experience overseen by one of the city’s best mixologists and a young chef who’s a name to watch.

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