While Fish Is A Mainstay Of The Kikkō Tasting Menus, Tofu Also Gets Its Due With Ramps, Green Almond, And Fried Bonito
Japanese Cuisine’s Inherent Health Halo And Rich Flavor Variety Are On Full Display At Hana Japanese
Ani Ramen House

Chef: Noah Sandoval

Kikkō has had a whirlwind ride since opening in Chicago’s West Loop less than a year ago. In addition to universal acclaim from critics and diners, the new restaurant earned a Michelin star in the 2020 guide, ensuring that reservations at this eight-seat spot will now be even harder to snag. Of course, executive chef Noah Sandoval and chef de cuisine Mariya Russell are no strangers to Michelin love, both having come from Sandoval’s two-star restaurant Oriole.

Kikkō’s seven-course omakase menu focuses on clean, bold flavors and meticulous preparation. Though the dishes are ever-changing, diners might find salmon sashimi topped with crunchy togarashi and brushed with shio koji, a traditional fermented marinade made from rice, or a dessert of toasted milk bread with fermented honey ice cream and freshly shaved truffle.

The menu also has an optional beverage pairing consisting of cocktails from the supremely talented Julia Momose, whose Japanese upbringing shines through in every drink. The complex flavors come from a variety of ingredients, including nori, hoshinomura hojicha tea, and traditional spirits like shochu. Even those very familiar with Japanese cuisine will find something to surprise them.

Chef: Lori Hashimoto

Tucked in an Arizona strip mall, Hana Japanese may look unassuming from the outside, but this local favorite is serving some of the freshest, most delicious sushi in the Southwest. Co-owner and chef Lori Hashimoto never intended to prepare the intricate dishes herself, but a lack of reliable kitchen staff eventually led her to jump on the line.

Since then, she’s witnessed—and been a part of—Japanese cuisine’s integration into the American diet. “I believe the interest in Japanese food has gone from being a trendy delicacy to a more health-conscious decision,” she says. “It’s nice to have guests ask about how they can incorporate Japanese food into their everyday diet.”

Hana prepares plenty of traditional sushi, but Hashimoto also likes to experiment with dishes like tempura-fried soft-boiled eggs served with a yogurt fish sauce or lamb riblets grilled with house-blended miso. “I love to create unique flavors,” Hashimoto says, “ones that surprise guests, who may not have thought that a particular food could taste that way.”

Chef: Julian Valencia
New Jersey

With four busy locations across the Garden State, it’s clear that the team at Ani Ramen House is doing something well—and it’s not sushi. “Japanese comfort food has really risen to the forefront in recent years,” says Luck Sarabhayavanija, founding partner. “Now there are more casual, approachable comfort food dishes available in the States, like izakaya, yakitori, curries, and noodle dishes.”

While Ani boasts plenty of ramen to go around, it is also introducing things like tsukemen, or dipping noodles. Cold, thick, chewy noodles are served with a protein, fresh toppings, and a side of hot dipping sauce. (Slurping is encouraged.)

The emphasis on Japanese comfort food has been a hit with diners. With lines out the door year-round, Ani is planning to open three to five more locations in the next year.

“When you visit Japan, you find these great little comfort food spots, which make travel interesting and fun,” Sarabhayavanija says. “It’s like coming to the U.S. and finding the best slice of pizza or burger.”

Menu Innovations, Slideshow