Understanding GAIJIN

Gaijin has garnered praise as one of Chicago’s most ambitious openings of 2019, and, while the last year saw little by way of new concepts in this city, the restaurant’s reputation is well-earned. You have visited the establishment four or five times following its first day of service in early November and must attest that the space is inviting, the food is delicious, and the experience flows with nary a hiccup. Yet Gaijin is still undoubtedly a “fast casual” restaurant–that familiar term whose definition has been so twisted, so distorted that it now demarcates any eatery that lands somewhere between fine dining and fast food. Can all the formulation involved in maintaining fast casual profit margins really coexist with creating inventive food? Can a chef empower his or her staff to express themselves (and, thus, impart in the restaurant something approaching a “soul”) when customer interaction is minimal and the kitchen never ceases? Or, is Gaijin’s gamble on savory Japanese pancakes just the latest flash in the pan, a restaurant destined for destitution once “foodies” find another shiny object to salivate over?

The chef of which we speak, in this case, is Paul Virant, who, despite the French-sounding name, grew up on his family’s farm outside of St. Louis. After earning a degree in nutrition from Wesleyan College and graduating from the C.I.A. in New York, Virant cut his chops at Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest, and Blackbird before founding Vie, his flagship restaurant, in 2004. Despite being located well out of the city (in the west suburban village of Western Springs), Vie earned a Michelin star in the Guide’s inaugural (2011) Chicago edition and retained it the year after. 2011 also saw the opening of Perennial Virant, a restaurant in Lincoln Park’s Lincoln Hotel that was created in collaboration with Boka Restaurant Group. Despite positive reviews, Perennial would close at the end of 2016 as BRG sought to reconceptualize the space. That took Virant out of the city to focus on Vie–still running strong–and Vistro, a west suburban bistro he opened in 2014. That is, until the chef made his triumphant return to downtown with the out-of-left-field concept that is Gaijin.

Before examining the restaurant proper, it bears exploring Virant’s culinary style a bit more carefully. While, at first glance, the restaurants scream “French” or “country French” cooking, they do not seek to merely regurgitate onion soup, cassoulet, and beef bourguignon. Rather, Virant’s personal style is best described as a meeting of Midwestern ingredients and farm philosophy with French technique. You see, the chef has a particular passion for pickling and canning products–as seen through his 2012 cookbook The Preservation­–that undeniably stems from his time in St. Louis. Being on the family farm, no doubt, meant learning to make the most of the season whether enjoying nature’s bounty fresh or preserving it for use during the winter. Thus, Virant begins with the season, the moment, taking a locally and lovingly produced ingredient and imagining not just what flavor it may yield now, but months or years in the future.

The tabletop griddles at Gaijin are both practical for the restaurant and engaging for the guest–with little danger of anybody burning themself.

In this manner, Midwestern produce–at its very purest–breathes new life into French favorites. Wood-grilled foie gras at Vie, for example, is garnished with sunchokes, apple, and smoked apple butter. Similarly, an entrée of sturgeon is sauced with pickled tomato and pancetta vinaigrette. Even the steak frites at Vistro is given a twist with the addition of pickled mushroom. Clearly, Virant knows how to imbue his dishes with depth of flavor, and he deserves extra credit for using a tag team of fresh and preserved local produce to stamp fish, fowl, pig, and cow with the unmistakable mark of the Midwest. And the chef makes great charcuterie too! Not just that, but homemade Cheez-Its? Fried beet pickles? Chicken mojo, baba ghanoush, and pizza too? Vistro’s dry-aged griddled burger even ranked #2 on the Tribune’s “20 Best Burgers in the Chicago Suburbs.” You see, Virant’s wheelhouse extends far beyond French fare. He extends his preservative style to the full range of Chicago’s (or, perhaps, America’s?) food culture, much in the same way Blackbird draws on any number of eclectic influences while never deviating in its ingredient sourcing. This is Midwestern cuisine in its essence, and perhaps that breadth is what enabled Virant to depart so drastically from what he was known for at Perennial.

Gaijin’s location, now that you mention it, is a departure from Perennial’s as well. Virant smartly traded Lincoln Park–one of the city’s most genteel and altogether unappealing neighborhoods for dynamic cooking–for Fulton Market, Chicago’s most exciting dining district for the past decade running. In making this switch, the chef now caters less to stuffed shirts and more to “tech bros” and other yuppies drawn to novelty for novelty’s sake. The restaurant sits one block south of The Aviary, Swift & Sons, (and Google’s Chicago headquarters) and just a couple blocks from the new McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Gaijin is west of Au Cheval, Girl & the Goat, and Momotaro but still quite a ways east of Smyth and Elske. That means the location is almost smack dab in the middle of Fulton Market and could very well benefit from the inevitable westward expansion of office and apartment buildings throughout the neighborhood.

Gaijin’s edifice is somewhat obstructed by the Morgan Station transit stop (which, in truth, may ultimately prove another boon for Virant), and the building’s windows are also set ever-so-slightly within the its outmost wall, meaning the restaurant is easily missed. That being said, it’s a cute building–dwarfed by those surrounding it–that makes for an intimate, cozy space. It’s not cramped either, just wonderfully self-contained and curated. The outer brick boasts a giant, graffitied samurai warrior who wraps around the restaurant’s flank and extends above the windows. The inside is all lacquered wood and neon with various Japanese knick-knacks scattered about and tapestries hung on the original brick. There is quite a mix of textures and patterns at play, but it all works. It all comes together to look slick and genuine in its appreciation of the culture from which the restaurant’s cuisine is derived.

While you would enjoy a greater selection of wine and sake, Gaijin’s beverage selection has its charms–like this nostalgic Japanese soda with a marble in its neck.

You first visited Gaijin a little more than two weeks after its opening and, since then, have visited three more times during the course of a month. The experiences, short of a few tweaks to the menu that you have noticed, have been consistent, and so you will condense the four visits into one comprehensive narrative that seeks to explore the totality of the restaurant’s offerings. So, let’s begin:

It is a Saturday in late November–just a couple weeks after Gaijin’s opening–and a little before 9 PM. You have just dined at Alinea, and your party sits inside the Uber that the restaurant has called for you. 950 W. Lake St. is the given destination, but the driver–no doubt distracted by the elevated line’s encased entrance–turns the corner onto Morgan St. and stops somewhere between Bar Takito and The Aviary. Scurrying out of the vehicle–and feeling far from sober–you walk back towards Lake St. in search of Gaijin. Peering east, you spy no sign of the restaurant, and so the group decides to cross southward. After making your way east down that side of the street, the building finally appears–back on the other side. You retrace your steps feeling a bit foolish but, mind you, this is before the restaurant put up the glowing signage that allows patrons to distinguish the establishment’s slim façade from further down the block. Also, for what it’s worth, Google Maps places its pin on the building directly behind Gaijin, making it seems as though the entrance is in an unused back alley. But who doesn’t enjoy a bit of a workout before second dinner?

You enter the restaurant and find yourself in a small receiving area. There is counter seating for six up against the window and another, longer counter that stretches along the side of the building opposite the door and comprises eight seats at the bar plus another thirteen in front of the kitchen. Facing forward from the door, peering over a small counter, you see the dining room: a mix of tables for two and four with a couple banquettes that fit six. Each of these tables have inset electric grills proportioned to their size, and each of the chairs at the tables and kitchen counter have storage cubbies hidden under their cushions. In all, Gaijin seats somewhere around 60 customers and makes use of its space marvelously. The main “lane” stretching from the front door, along the kitchen, to the bathrooms is narrow (but not too narrow). So are the gaps between stools, seats, and tables (without ever making one feel squished against the other guests). The restaurant has undoubtedly maximized its building’s space without compromising the customer experience or handicapping the front-of-house staff–a true accomplishment for any fast casual concept.

A vegetarian okonomiyaki featuring Phoenix Bean tofu (from Illinois) and River Valley mushrooms (from Illinois/Wisconsin). Even without any animal protein, the pancake demonstrates Virant’s textural mastery.

The hostess greets your party immediately upon entering and, after just a few seconds, whisks you away to a four-top towards the front of the dining room. Menus, plates, paper napkins, utensils, and water glasses are already waiting on the table. The electric griddle is on and set to a warming temperature. The water is filled by a busser, and the server presents herself just as your group gets a look at the drink menu, where the cocktails are split into two categories. The first, “highballs,” combines a base spirit like whisky, gin, or vodka with an accompanying dash of fresh fruit, steeped tea, or an interesting liqueur and plenty of tonic water, ginger beer, or some other non-alcoholic mixer to make it all refreshing and easy to drink. As is the case at many Japanese restaurants, Gaijin has struck a deal with Suntory to carry some of their products (Toki whisky, Haku vodka, Roku gin) and branded barware for use in these highballs. Apart from these six offerings, another category titled “cocktails” contains four further options including plays on a French 75 and an Old Fashioned.

Delving deeper into the beverage list, there are some nine by-the-glass sakes on offer including one in the junmai, two in the junmai ginjo, and one in the junmai daiginjo styles. Glasses are offered in 5 oz. “single” pours as well as 10 oz. “shared” servings (at a slightly reduced price). White, red, and sparkling wines are offered in similar numbers, with around five by-the-glass options per category and three available only as full bottles (ranging from $50 – $85 with only a couple options north of $100). There is little here for the wine-lover to get excited about, but Gaijin’s options cover all the bases respectably, and the sparkling section, in particular, is certain to please customers with a variety of value options (and only one bonafide “Champagne” at a list-topping $150). Beers are offered three on draft–a local “hop-forward” ale, a local “malt-driven” ale, and a crisp lager made for Gaijin by Moody Tongue Brewing–and five in bottle, featuring Japanese brands like Sapporo, Hitachino, and Kagua. Iced and hot tea–courtesy of Rare Tea Cellars–and non-alcoholic options like matcha lemonade, cherry blossom soda, Calpico (a milky, uncarbonated soft drink), and Ramune (the soda with the marble inside) round out the restaurant’s selections.

Your standby has been the “Jin-Ger,” a highball made from ginger shochu, ginger liqueur, lemon, and ginger beer. It is refreshing enough but conjures memories of the homemade ginger beer that went into the hand-crafted Moscow mules at your favorite BBQ place in Tokyo. There, the ginger tantalized your palate with such a power that you made short work of some three racks of ribs and a half dozen drinks in a quarter of an hour. Here, the “Jin-Ger” is just alright: one of the best options among a multitude of interesting concepts that, nonetheless, fall a bit short in their execution. One drink is a bit too boozy. The next? Too much syrup. But the cocktails are cheap, they’re smashable, and they do deserve some points for effort. The summer season–whenever that does come–may see some movement on the beverage list and offer an opportunity to impress with fresh ideas. For now, you would advise that guests pick the option that sounds least offensive and allow the cocktails and other drinks to take a backseat to the food being served.

On that note, Gaijin offers one à la carte menu from 11 A.M. to 11 P.M. with no specials or other changes throughout the day. While this does strike you as a bit static, the dishes have indeed gone through a bit of evolution during the course of your visits. Further, the simplicity that comes from only having to cook one menu has helped ensure that the kitchen remains focused and–more or less–unerring in the time since the restaurant has opened. As you will see, the menu’s structure allows for almost an endless assortment of dishes–offering just the sort of freedom an eclectic chef like Virant can be expected to seize on after all the excitement of the new opening settles. Virant also deserves some credit for showing off his ingredient sourcing–with River Valley mushrooms, Werp Farms greens, Mighty Vine tomatoes, Slagel Family Farm pork belly, and Publican Quality Meats sausage and bacon all named on the menu. This “who’s who” of Illinois and neighboring state producers stands as a testament to both the chef’s quality standards and support of local agriculture. Prices do not seem to suffer at all either. Bravo!

To begin, there are “starters” such as kombu-marinated vegetables (celery, green beans, and radish) and crudités served with a shiro-miso dip. While these dishes struck you, at the time, as a bit dainty, you did enjoy a perfectly respectable spicy miso soup and a simple greens salad (dressed with sesame-yuzu vinaigrette) from this section. The starters are rounded out with two versions of korokke, a Japanese version of the croquette that seems heaven-sent for Virant’s concept. Both the “veggie” version (made from mushrooms and rice) and the “beef” (a blend of beef and potato) are combined with curry, breaded, deep fried, and served with tomatoes, daikon pickles, and tonkatsu sauce. You tried the beef variant and found the crunchy texture pleasing. The flavor, too, was intensified by the supremely umami sauce. However, you cannot help but find the two croquettes to be a small portion for the price ($7). Or, perhaps, they just look a little lonely on the plate. You would recommend ordering two portions or, as you have more recently done, skipping the “starter” section altogether.

And, mind you, that does not mean skipping appetizers completely, for the menu’s second section is titled “shared plates.” Does this mean that the “starters” are meant for individuals ordering their own meals at the same table? Surely, a soup is not easily shared, but is crudité and dip not the definition of a “shared plate”? The korokke may be small, you might happily eat both yourself, but there is clearly some intention that they are shared too. This confusion aside, you would strongly recommend many of the category’s items, like a dish of deep, dark brown garlic cloves cooked twice and spread on top of rice crackers. For lovers of garlic, there is no greater pleasure than the soft chew and slight caramel notes that come with such extended roasting. There is also a preparation of bok choy–steamed and slathered with shoyu, sesame seeds, and fried shallots–that might look like it belongs in the “sides” section but impresses with its contrasting textures. All the aforementioned crunchy bits work well to liven up the thicker, blander chunks of the cabbage, which, even when cooked well, can otherwise tire one’s palate.

Also to be shared is a dish of beef short ribs–thin, boneless strips a few inches long that are brushed with soy sauce and topped with a handful of scallions. At $13, the dish barely offers enough beef for two guests to share as an appetizer, yet the meat is undoubtedly cooked and seasoned well. Thus, these short ribs are somewhat of a failsafe for guests who might be deterred by the whole “savory pancake” concept and crave something they can truly sink their teeth into. Those customers, instead, who are enthusiastic about Gaijin’s okonomiyaki can save their appetite for the beef variant being offered. Rounding out the “shared plates” section are three styles of yakisoba featuring pork belly, octopus, and shrimp respectively. The soba (or, “buckwheat”) noodles are stir-fried with cabbage, scallions, carrots, and the selected protein before being lightly dressed in a mystery sauce and topped with sesame seeds. Given how pleasingly chewy Gaijin’s soba noodles are, you feel more comfortable recommending the yakisoba offerings than the short rib. However, much like the beef, the yakisoba appears in some of the okonomiyaki options, and customers looking to try as many of the restaurant’s signature pancakes as possible may look to sacrifice such shared plates that rehash the same ingredients. Still, you think an order of the short ribs and an order of yakisoba would make a nice lunch for anyone who works in the area.

A corned beef okonomiyaki crafted especially for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. This pancake was not only delicious–it demonstrated the promise of the savory pancake form as a canvas for cross-cultural creations.

At last, we move onto the main event, Gaijin’s raison d’ être.: the okonomiyaki. Loosely translated into “what you like” (okonomi) “cooked” (yaki), the restaurant’s savory pancakes are divided into three regional styles that offer a variety of fillings. First, and most expansive in its options, is the “Osaka-style” pancake where a base of cabbage is combined with other toppings and cooked as one cohesive “batter.” This is contrasted by the “Hiroshima-style,” where yakisoba noodles are installed at the base of the pancake and subsequent ingredients are layered upwards while remaining distinct from the batter. Lastly, there is the “negiyaki” pancake made from scallions rather than cabbage. Each of these styles of pancake are prepared on large griddles strewn along the kitchen counter and then transported to guests’ tables, where they remain on the smaller, inset griddles. Those sitting at the bar or counter are served on small, individual pans. It all works quite well, with the back of house manning its griddles with speed and precision of Waffle House’s short-order cooks, and the front of house ferrying pancakes from place to place… like Waffle House waitresses.

Moving sequentially, the “Osaka-style” okonomiyaki is undoubtedly Gaijin’s standard-bearer, for the incorporation of the ingredients into the batter allows for greater customization and structural integrity. The shrimp (tempura fried with corn and creole butter), octopus (with hot sauce and honey gastrique), and pork (made from PQM sausage and bacon) pancakes are stand outs and a real testament to the adaptive nature of the okonomiyaki “form.” (Gaijin, of course, refers to a “foreigner” in Japanese, and the restaurant’s name, you think, always implied it will riff on tradition through use of local or broadly American ingredients.) It is hard to do justice to the level of textural complexity at play in these pancakes. The crispness of the tempura shrimp, for example, coexists with the pop of corn kernels, the crunch of rice crackers, and the smooth cabbage batter (which, nonetheless, possesses a bit of its own crunch). There’s the creole butter too, perhaps a drizzle of mayonnaise and a dusting of dried seaweed as well. Each of the ingredients, depending on the bite one takes, can be distinguished, yet they undoubtedly combine to create something much greater: a mythical, “perfect” savory bite brimming with sweet, salty, sour, and umami flavors in perfect harmony.

Such is the promise of the savory pancake form, and the “Osaka-style” offerings at Gaijin are made even stronger by the $2 add-ons (egg, bacon, udon, crispy rice, and cheese) available only with this style. You would heartily recommend adding either the udon noodles or crispy rice to any of the pancakes, for the extra layer of texture they both add will only work to accentuate the other ingredients in your chosen creation. The egg, bacon, and cheese add-ons will also certainly improve any of the pancakes, but you think the pork, chicken, and beef ones synergize best with the richness of these flavors and textures. Your ultimate pancake? The pork (sausage and bacon) with egg, udon, and cheese added to it–better known as the breakfast Publican Quality Meats wishes they could serve (just kidding). Closing out this category, you would warn customers against being tempted by the “Osaka-style” flight of three smaller pancakes. While, ostensibly, this option would allow you to try more flavors, the mini pancakes are a bit too small to properly congeal their ingredients and, thus, sacrifice the superb textural experience of the full-size ones.

In contrast with the “Osaka-style” pancakes, those made in the “Hiroshima-style” do away with some of the textural complexity of a fully combined batter in favor of cleaner bites and an increased focus on several distinct ingredients. Here, the cabbage is layered on top of the batter and followed by an additional layer of those crispy yakisoba noodles. From that base, the customer can choose one of two styles of pancake: the “traditional” (bacon, egg, and bonito) or the “vegetarian” (mushroom, egg, tofu skin, and crispy kelp). These additional ingredients are also added in sequential layers before being topped with a lattice of sauce and served. There are no add-ons available in this style, (though you have heard tables add bacon onto the vegetarian variant). While, over time, you have come to exclusively order the “Osaka-style” pancakes, the “Hiroshima-style” is certainly worth trying at least once. The experience is more akin to eating a donburi, as one may better control the amount of noodle and pancake used to buffer each bite of the principal ingredients (or simply allow the bottom layer to sop up all the “sauce”). This helps one distinguish and appreciate the pancakes’ constituents all the more while, perhaps, inhibiting its ability to be easily shared. You think the “Hiroshima-style” is best saved for a single diner to mull over while larger parties are better served sharing a wider variety of “Osaka-style” pancakes and make prodigious use of the add-on options.

Gaijin’s Osaka-style shrimp pancake: a signature creation filled with tempura-fried shrimp, corn, & creole butter.

The last of the okonomiyaki options–titled “negiyaki”–comes in one form: a scallion pancake layered with egg, bacon, ponzu sauce, and topped with bonito flakes. The fragility of the scallion batter means that this pancake is delivered in a bowl rather than placed on the griddle. Yet, despite missing this bit of charm, the negiyaki possesses a firmer, more pleasurable crunch than the cabbage-based varieties. Like the “Hiroshima-style,” it is worth ordering at least once but begins to pale in comparison to the “Osaka-style” when one considers variety and customization. It should also be noted that Gaijin also offers three “sides” to accompany customers’ entrées: a trio of tsukemono (Japanese pickles), a housemade kimchi, and a bowl of steamed and seasoned rice. While you find the $3 kimchi to be crunchy, tangy, and–overall–very nicely made, the $5 trio of Japanese pickles leaves something to be desired. The assortment of cucumber, radish, and carrot pieces is not only on the smaller side, but none of the vegetables taste “pickled” enough to meaningfully contrast from the other savory fare. Given Virant’s mastery of preservation, you feel that this is a stylistic choice made to showcase the natural flavor of the ingredients. Nonetheless, there just isn’t much of that that comes through. No complaints about the rice though.

For dessert, pastry chef Angelyne Canicosa has tried her hand–no, not at sweet pancakes–but at kakigori, a Japanese dessert of shaven ice flavored with syrup and condensed milk. Here, like with the okonomiyaki, Gaijin plays around with both traditional and “westernized” forms. For example, there’s the “ujikintoki,” a classic variant that combines matcha ice cream, red bean paste, matcha syrup, and mochi. Or, the “sesame yuzu,” which features black sesame ice cream, yuzu syrup, strawberry compote, and a brittle made of honey sesame. The “s’more” (chocolate ice cream, graham cracker crunch, toasted marshmallow fluff), “upside-down cake” (buttermilk pineapple sherbet, brown butter crunch, whipped coconut), and “the Gaijin” (cinnamon-gooey buttercake ice cream, caramelized apples, puffed rice brittle) are the more decadent items (being, of course, styled after American desserts).

By now, you have tried each of the five kakigori and find all of them wanting. Fundamentally, as described on Gaijin’s menu, the shaved ice should be “fluffy and light” so that it “melts instantly to deliver great flavor.” However, you cannot help but find Gaijin’s ice to be much too solid, and the servings of syrup and toppings to be much too small to prevent that ice from diluting the flavor of the whole concoction. Even when ordering the sweetest of the options like the “smore” or “the Gaijin,” your party found itself excavating the inner layer of ice cream from its icy tomb and enjoying that, the syrup, and the toppings separately. Surely, the toasted marshmallow fluff is a nice touch, but it’s gone after just a few bites, leaving one with a mound of brown snow that only tastes the slightest bit of chocolate. You might even go so far as to say you enjoy the more traditional flavors of matcha and sesame because they taste better when diluted in this manner. In sum, there is no doubt that Gaijin’s kakigori are well thought out and creative, but there is something at the mechanical level (perhaps a lack of specialty ice shaving equipment) that prevents them from really working. Thankfully, each of the housemade ice creams are available individually, along with several flavors of crispy-then-chewy glazed mochi donuts made with rice flour. These donuts are excellent and something that Canicosa should be very proud of.

While not each and every dish on Gaijin’s menu is a smash hit, you have little doubt that most customers will leave the restaurant feeling pleased. Pleased and impressed, for Virant does convince diners that the okonomiyaki form is more than a novelty. It’s not being appropriated either, as the chef knows both how to show reverence towards tradition while harnessing the spirit of that tradition to find new frontiers for the savory pancake form. The inroads Virant has made over a long career championing local produce also really pay off, as the success of Gaijin’s dishes hinges only on a small number of ingredients that must be procured and prepared at their very best. That is not to say that certain items–like the Japanese pickles and shaved ice desserts–and some portion sizes couldn’t do with a little tweaking. Nonetheless, in the time since its opening, the restaurant’s menu has already expanded and refined its offerings. So long as Virant and his team stay motivated–and, with a prime spot in a growing neighborhood, why wouldn’t they–both the okonomiyaki and kakigori offer almost endless room for new renditions.

In the final analysis, Gaijin represents fast casual dining at its best. It offers Chicagoans a novel food, prepared quickly, thoroughly customizable, easily eaten alone (or shared), along with a dizzying array of small plates that draw on some of the same ingredients to cover all the bases and provide extra value. The drinks are pleasing (just don’t look for much depth), and the dessert is likely to impress (the kakigori still looks captivating even if the dish is technically flawed). Service, when all is said and done, hums along without the slightest problem. You’re not sure there is much of an opportunity for the front of house staff at Gaijin to connect deeply with customers, yet they do seem natural, gracious, and geared towards answering the many questions that are part and parcel of serving the city a new creation.

The careful hand with which Paul Virant has crafted his “restaurant empire” (of which, maybe with Gaijin’s opening, the term can now be said to apply) has paid off well. Gaijin operates with all the self-confidence and restraint of an experienced chef at the helm. The restaurant succeeds in introducing a far-flung delicacy–celebrating the savory pancake in its traditional, regional forms while, simultaneously, transforming it by way of local ingredients and Virant’s personal style. Only one question remains: is okonomiyaki a try-before-you-die novelty, or will Gaijin earn a lasting place among Chicago’s comfort food classics? Only one man, Virant, can answer such a question. But, judging by the creativity already on display, Gaijin only promises to get better.

Two Pineapples: exceptional hospitality with a pervading sense of soul, food that speaks of “someone” or “somewhere,” yet the restaurant still operates within the realm of expectation.