The Best Restaurants in Chicago 2016December 27, 2016
Naoki has garnered a ton of press in it’s first year open and finished 2016 on SIX Best Restaurant lists. We are so thrilled & honored to be included with these other amazing restaurants.
To get to it, you’re led through Intro’s kitchen to an unmarked door, behind which is a little gem of a restaurant, somehow light filled and lively even though it’s basically a windowless sushi closet. Shutting out the outside world lets you focus on Nakashima’s silken truffle chawan mushi and outstanding fish, including some vibrant traditional rolls (for instance, the refreshing shiso-leaf-topped cucumber) and Naoki-style sashimi (perhaps radiant bursts of sliced madai with charred mushrooms and plums).
In a year filled with delicious new restaurants, it’s easy to forget the one that started it all. In January, behind the already acclaimed Intro, Lettuce Entertain You debuted a high-end sushi spot helmed by chef Naoki Nakashima. His commitment to carefully sourced seafood and equally exceptional execution results in mosaics of thinly sliced hamachi adorned with aji panca, scallion, and ponzu or truffle chawanmushi in dashi broth.
Naoki serves exceptional sushi in a space that’s both very unique and very comfortable, and it’s the combination of those factors that make it one of our favorite new spots of the year. The Naoki space was originally the private dining room of L20, a fancy restaurant inside the Belden-Stratford building in Lincoln Park. The main space is now called Intro, while Naoki is accessed by walking through the kitchen. It’s not as formal or fancy as you might expect – it reminds us of the type of high-end but not stuffy sushi experiences common in Tokyo, where you can sit at the bar or one of a handful of tables for an intimate and enjoyable experience. Dinner here is expensive, but all good sushi in this city is, and the price is absolutely worth it for an excellent sushi meal.
If you like sushi and Al Capone, you’ll certainly love this Lincoln Park sushi spot from the folks at Lettuce Entertain You. Not only does Naoki have some of Chicago’s best raw fish and architecturally composed sashimi plates, but the only way to get to the speakeasy-like dining room is via a gangster-style sashay through the Intro kitchen. Once inside, you’ll commit crimes against your waistline, sucking down irresistible delights such as truffle-perfumed chawanmushi egg custard swimming in soulful dashi broth or an entire lobster split and ready for dipping in citrus-infused ponzu.
Considering its Midwestern locale, Chicago has long been stigmatized as more of a meat-and-potatoes town than a seafood town. But also considering the caliber of chefs and restaurants in Chicago, on par with the best in the world, it’s not surprising that the city’s seafood cred has skyrocketed. With places like Naoki Sushi, which quickly established itself as one of the best places for fresh fish in the city when it opened back in January, diners could be forgiven for thinking Chicago is set right on ocean shores. It raised the bar for sashimi, maki and nigiri, sourcing some of the most pristine ingredients and preparing them with astonishing precision. The overall dining experience is also pretty cool in and of itself, as the restaurant is hidden behind the Intro kitchen.
Must-order: Among the flawless offerings, highlights include hamachi sashimi with aji panca and the mackerel nigiri with yuzu koshu.
I’d kind of forgotten that Naoki came in 2016, until it was time to make this list, because I like it so much that it sort of faded into the background of permanent Chicago spots. This tiny sushi lounge hidden behind Intro is not exactly what you’d expect from restaurant giant Lettuce Entertain You, but its level of freshness and innovation easily matches any sushi spot in town. My favorite raw bite (from their sea urchin special) of the year came from here, and while it’s not exactly a cheap date, if you love Japanese food it’s a must-do.