Despite what you may have heard, Mako does not serve the best sushi in Chicago. Sure, it is a stunning, special venue. The staff is polished. The branding is slick. There is a well-priced beverage pairing and a decent wine/sake selection to boot. You may even go so far as to say that Mako is one of the better Japanese restaurants in the city. But in terms of sushi? Omakase signifies a formal menu structure shaped by tradition and technique. The sushi at Mako–which is rarely even made by Chef B.K. Park himself–bastardizes the art of omakase. Do not let the glitz and glamour fool you–within Chicago’s recent high-end sushi boom, Mako may very well rank as the worst of them all at a purely technical level.
Self-described as “one of the country’s premier sushi chefs,” Korean-born B.K. Park is undoubtedly the most experienced sushi chef in Chicago, having spent two years at Tsunami, seven at Mirai Sushi, three at Arami, and six years at Juno (where he is still chef-owner alongside his work at Mako). You endured a rather forgettable $110 omakase at Arami last year, but that was long after Park had left the establishment. Other than that, you recall visiting Juno once during the summer of 2015. Not knowing the restaurant offered a ($150) omakase at that time–or, perhaps, not knowing what an omakase was at all–you had a pleasant-enough à la carte meal. Some of the signature smoked dishes struck you as gimmicky, and the restaurant seemed to distinguish itself more through creative plating than exceptionally crafted flavors. Still, you remember liking Juno but deciding that Momotaro offered much of the same experience (and then some) in your own backyard.
By the time Mako opened in March of this year, you had made your way sequentially from Sushi-San’s omakase ($88) to Omakase Yume ($125) to Omakase Takeya ($130) and then, finally, to Kyōten ($220) as they each set up shop in the city. You visited each establishment multiple times and, drawing on your formative experiences eating at Masa, Ichimura, Soto, and Nakazawa in New York City, you declared Kyōten a clear winner. The other restaurants certainly represent good relative value. They are a perfect way of cutting one’s teeth and learning to distinguish the fine details that define a more refined sushi-making technique. Yet price point does matter, for more prized fish simply cost more. A higher price point should also, ostensibly, pay for a more intimate environment and direct access to the chef. Kyōten did not simply charge more than its predecessors, its chef backed it up with showmanship and mastery of his craft. Otto Phan dreamt of bringing Michelin-starred sushi to Chicago, dreaming far bigger than the established Chicago entities who had recently shifted towards the omakase format. To you, he succeeded (though you will save a discussion of Michelin’s madness for a later occasion).
B.K. Park, too, dreamt of Mako for many years while running Juno. It was the “passion project” that would transform his omakase from an expensive sideshow at an otherwise average Japanese restaurant into the main event. Yet, despite working in Chicago for decades, Park never took the plunge until four rivals had opened their doors in the city. Rather than be the one to shoulder the risk involved in teaching Chicagoans how to enjoy proper nigiri, the chef waited in the wings for more than half a year as his comparably unknown rivals ushered in a new era for sushi lovers. Just keep that in mind. Mako represents both the culmination of a career spent in Chicago and–as a “passion project”–a total cop out. Park never believed in opening a sushi bar omakase that could stand on its own, always preferring places that offer anonymously-made à la carte dishes to “pad” the experience and put more asses in seats. Even today, Mako stands as the only omakase-only restaurant in the city that offers table seating (a bastardization of an already-bastardized experience, but you’ll get to that soon). Nonetheless, once other chefs had cleared the way, Mako opened bearing a $175 price point in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood (also home to Omakases Yume and Takeya).
You have eaten at Mako a total of five times this year. The first occasion occurred just two days after its opening. The second? Four days after that. You swore you would never return to the restaurant after that, but you your head was turned by a guest chef dinner in mid-August. Then, in early December, another guest chef dinner drew you in. Chef Park, by then, had noticed you had visited twice in quick succession at opening then only returned for these special menus. He insisted it would be worth returning for the normal menu, and so you reneged and made your fifth and final visit one week later. This review will seem harsh, but you feel confident in your assessment of the restaurant at this point. Further, you feel both Phil Vettel and Michelin are derelict in their duty to champion good food first and foremost and not be distracted by the sort of smoke and mirrors Mako makes use of to mask what is ultimately inferior, forgettable sushi. Though Mako may please the amateur sushi connoisseur more reliably than Kyōten, these critics do a disservice to the city by championing the “safe” choice. They aid in putting lipstick on a pig that bears no ultimate resemblance to the art of omakase at its most transcendent.
Anyway, let’s begin. Upon your first visit to Mako–the Sunday evening following its Friday opening–you were immediately impressed by the level of investment in the restaurant’s décor. The outer signage is sleek and understated. Perhaps it is even easy to miss, given that Mako occupies a quiet stretch of Lake St. with Momotaro one block to the west, Oriole one block to the east, and Au Cheval just one block south. The restaurant’s metal paneled door blends well with the larger edifice–an apartment building called The Parker (which boasts both a cycling “bar” and a rowing “house” adjacent to each other). But be careful! That door is so heavy that you may doubt the restaurant is actually open. Be sure to give it a hefty tug, or else you may stand out in the cold like a fool waiting for another diner with a stronger grip to lead the way.
The front door leads to a small vestibule where yet another door leads to a similarly-sized lobby with two short benches and a closet for coats. There is no host stand per se but, rather, an iPad. Someone with a managerial presence greeted you in the lobby on that first visit. Someone else, bearing that same air of experience, greeted you upon your second visit. However, visits three, four, and five saw the restaurant a bit shorter staffed, and, thus, you had to wait a moment for someone to come out from the back of the dining room to welcome you. This is not a huge blemish on the experience, but you have observed guests enter and seem unsure of just where they should stand and just what they should do. Also, given there is no dedicated “host,” details like offering to take customers’ coats can be overlooked as staff members tend to their other obligations. But it is no matter, for you would rather Mako put the price of its menu towards pursuing gastronomic pleasure and not merely offering extra pleasantries of service.
After checking in, you are led just a few steps into the dining room. The space draws on a palette of cool greys accented with off-white chairs, polished wooden platters, and dramatic lighting (expertly cast over each individual place setting). On one wall (in front of which the table seating is located) stretches a long, textural canvas of faded blue that seems to imitate sea foam. It’s sort of a poor man’s Deep Water No. 1 (the staggeringly beautiful centerpiece of Le Bernardin’s dining room). On the wall opposite of that–that is, behind the sushi bar itself–hangs an abstract assortment of three-dimensional shining gold splotches. It’s the sort of soulless, “artsy” installation you love to hate, but, here, it really works. Mako’s setting is gorgeous, and you cannot find a single thing that is out of place. The sushi counter seats twelve while the tables accommodate another ten customers (and can be joined to allow for larger parties). You always choose to sit at the counter and, on that first visit, are given two seats at its far end (opposite the lobby).
You can the beverage list, which attractively presents three cocktails, a dozen sakes, and about the same number of wines alongside a single beer, a few Japanese whiskies, and tea. The wines are rather forgettable–think village level Bourgogne and nonvintage Champagne–but they’re nearly all under $100. The sake list ranges from $80 to $360 with most bottles landing somewhere around $150. They’re all Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo bottlings, which you think is a good choice given the purity and subtlety of flavor found in sushi. The whiskies–a few Nikka bottlings, a Yamazaki 12 Year, and a Hibiki Harmony–are nothing to right home about (but are priced fairly enough). Apart from its list, Mako offers a beverage pairing for $85 and charges customers $40 per bottle as corkage. All in all, it’s an accessible list that will not intimidate anyone new to the omakase format. There’s nothing on it that screams “value” or excites you, but lovers of sake may enjoy having so many stylistic options in the same price range. On this first visit, you order cocktails and choose to do the pairing. On all subsequent visits, you will bring your own bottles of wine and stomach the corkage.
The whisky cocktail goes down easy, but, once dinner service starts, the trouble begins. You see, those twelve seats at the sushi counter are actually separated into two zones of six. You quickly realize that while half of the dining room has their meal made by “one of the country’s premier sushi chefs,” the other half pays the same price for an anonymous apprentice to touch their food. Your heart sinks as you see B.K. (who you recognize from his wonderful portrait on the website) pass by your station and post up at the corner nearest to the entrance. Your sushi chef–middle-aged, goateed, and wearing a hoop earring (not unlike that which also adorns B.K.)–takes his place in front of you. He’s clearly experienced–you would assume he’s been at B.K.’s side for a while–but quiet and lifeless. Not that B.K. himself has much to say. He welcomes familiar customers and, otherwise, simply recites the ingredients that make up the food.
Needless to say, you are disappointed not to have the “master” himself cooking for you. It’s a feeling that dogs most of fine dining, where customers–drawn to spend hundreds of dollars due to the artistry of some famed chef–covet even a glimpse of the maestro at work. As mentioned in your review of Alinea, Grant’s presence at the restaurant is not required for it to function well but, nonetheless, works to paper over some of the experimental flourishes that fail to land. To wit, you have had many a great meal at Eleven Madison Park without ever seeing Daniel Humm in the kitchen. However, the best meals of your life have certainly been at restaurants like Brooklyn Fare, Manresa, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Atera, and Smyth where the head chef can be reliably expected to be there.
Sushi, however, is another matter altogether. The head chef of an omakase restaurant is not so much of a creative director–content to conceptualize dishes and provide the training and process for their timely replication by the rest of the team. Rather, the sushi chef is a repository of technique, of expertise, that cannot merely be copied by lesser cooks. The apprenticeship system is one in which the slightest of movements and smallest “tweaks” of flavor that separate “good” sushi from “great” are passed down in an intuitive way. The master may be teaching his underlings how to, ultimately, execute “his” menu, yet that sense of culinary ownership is built on a foundation of fish and rice handling that may take decades to learn. So, in their efforts to meet the standards of the master, students, by osmosis, are trained in the very core of their craft. It’s a training that, even if it could concisely be expressed in some sort of textbook, would amount to: “repeat this movement, hone in on that flavor contrast ad infinitum.” Thus, chefs like B.K. Park are not merely businessmen, not merely leaders, but mentors and custodians of an artform whose preservation depends on hands-on instruction.
Sure, in all your visits to Masa, you never had Masa Takayama himself prepare your sushi. Sure, it did get to you, and it’s a reason you came to prefer other establishments that only opened their doors when the head, named chef would be working. In Japan, for example, sushi restaurants are rather careful about warning customers (even tourists) when an apprentice will be manning the counter. Not only that, but the price of the omakase would almost always be reduced by $30-$50 of whatever the master charges. Those paying $600 (per person) for a meal at Masa may be justified in feeling jilted that the great chef is not touching their food. However, to be an apprentice at Masa–to be one worthy of holding down the counter which Takayama has ascribed his name–is, indeed, an honor. One may track the brotherhood of former Masa apprentices and find many successful chefs and restaurateurs in their own rights. So, if not Masa standing before you at Masa, it is at least clear your sushi is coming from a pedigreed individual. But what to make of Mako?
Mako, surely, does not bear Chef Park’s name. Rather, as the website describes, the restaurant is “named after a species of shark known for its speed, precision, focus and instinct.” Despite B.K.’s reputation within Chicago, Mako’s promise is not a personal pledge. His name, his face is not front and center–just, as you imagine, ordering Juno’s omakase was never an assurance that B.K. would be cooking for you. And, given how many places Park has opened over the years, perhaps it is smart to somewhat disassociate his presence from the day to day operation of the restaurant. Plus, as far as you can remember, only Morimoto, Naoki, and (soon to be) Nobu have opened sushi restaurants in Chicago bearing the chef’s name.
So, as you sit facing Park’s apprentice on that first visit to Mako, you cannot say you feel too cheated yet. Sure, the restaurant charges the same price regardless of who is cooking your food. Yes, the case hasn’t quite been made as to just whom this apprentice is (and what experience he wields). B.K., for one, is hardly a talker, and his understudy is, still, even more quiet. Yet twelve counter seats, indeed, is too much for one man to handle. The space is still so beautiful, and, oh, maybe Chef Park will still find his way to prepare some part of the meal for you.
The meal begins with what would become a familiar set-piece: a trio of assembled bites that you think can appropriately be termed “Michelin bait.” On that first visit, you received a luxurious trifecta of monkfish liver (with osetra caviar), king crab (with uni miso, A5 wagyu butter, and potato chip), and abalone (“braised with house soy” and liver sauce). The second visit–later in that same week–saw the monkfish liver swapped with that of a red snapper (but otherwise similarly prepared). Your most recent visit, last week, saw the liver swapped out altogether for a twirl of lean tuna (still topped with caviar) and the abalone replaced with a smoked Japanese bonito. But the king crab, as always, remained unchanged. There is no doubt that any one of these trios makes for an attractive first plate; however, it demonstrates the same sort of “shock and awe” tactic seen throughout the environment. Any of the bites, served alone, would be singled out for being much too small. Served together, however, they impart the feeling of luxury (though those luxurious ingredients are actually being used rather sparingly). Ultimately, these bites are a tasty start sure to more or less please everyone due to the basic calculus of textural contrast being employed. However, looking back upon the meal’s conclusion, customers must surely wonder how morsels no bigger than the head of your thumb each count as a singular “course” on the menu.
Next arrives another wonderful little plating that the restaurant makes use of for each of its menus. Four slices of sashimi sit on a halved stalk of bamboo that juts out horizontally from a bowl that could double as a terrarium. A leaf sporting a schmear of wasabi is nestled perfectly under the bamboo (and also extending off of the edge of the piece). The presentation is bound to impress first-time customers, but the quality of the dish just about ends there. The sashimi itself–which often includes amberjack, salmon, and fatty tuna–is good, like the opening bites, but not great. Perhaps you would say “fair” instead of “good.” The word “forgettable,” again, comes to mind: each of the fish chews easily but does not amaze with distinct differences in flavor or texture. In fact, there’s just not much flavor to go around, even with the added wasabi. What more can one expect? The fish is not of any special quality and receives only the most basic description. It is cut by the apprentice and whisked to the kitchen, where it adorns a fancy service piece and reappears–with greater rigidity–having sat long enough to plate the full dozen. It looks pretty, sure, and will impress the diner that is altogether new to omakase. But, to you, the dish merely shoehorns sashimi into the menu with no intention of doing it well. Rather, the fanciful plating is just another shiny object to distract those whose palates cannot pick out good from bad examples of the craft.
During the first two visits in the month of March, the sashimi was followed by a chawanmushi flavored with shiitake mushroom broth. You certainly never mind seeing this egg custard dish, which–when well executed–has a pleasing richness and deep (yet subtle) sweetness that envelops any accompanying ingredients. At Mako, the custard is a bit watery. You suppose the “water” is actually the mushroom broth, but it doesn’t taste enough of shiitake to convince you. Texturally, the chawanmushi breaks apart into soft chunks that possess the slightest of jiggles when scooped with a spoon. The chunks yield to the tongue’s pressure and turn into a soft cream as they slide down your throat. You may even go out on a limb and call the custard “silky,” with a few pieces of shiitake hidden below providing a nice textural contrast. Nonetheless, the dish just does not offer any dominant flavor from either the mushroom broth or the egg. Certainly, chawanmushi is a dish that demands a soft touch, but you hate to see an otherwise agreeable texture wasted on what tastes like a poor example of egg drop soup. In December, the chawanmushi was replaced by a solitary Kusshi oyster that came seasoned with tomato, trout roe, and oyster leaf. You’re not quite sure why the warm custard was removed in time for cold weather. Perhaps, you can acknowledge, the chef didn’t think the dish was up to snuff. Otherwise, the oyster was just “okay.” It did not possess enough brine or flavor of its own to taste much like anything. Rather, it made for another pretty picture–and should a raw oyster really be following the sashimi or be placed before it?
At this point in the meal, guests are served the first of three distinct “flights” of nigiri. Each of the flights, then, is followed with a cooked dish from Mako’s kitchen before the menu reverts back, once more, to sushi. Needless to say, you are not a fan of this format at all. It denies customers the opportunity to discern the textural intricacies that distinguish each and every bite in the sushi sequence from one another. It confounds the palate by constantly switching between raw and hot food, rather than using the comforting warmth of a cooked dish to soothe the stomach and close out the meal. The format only seems to lighten the load on the two sushi chefs who, to remind you, are only responsible for six customers each. More cynically, you think the cooked dishes are a means for the restaurant to hedge its bets with customers who might not enjoy the sushi itself. This can particularly be seen in the restaurant’s online reviews, where customers single out these cooked dishes for special praise while altogether forgetting what nigiri was served. Again, this points to Mako being far more of a Japanese restaurant than one dedicated to the craft of sushi. But, for now, you digress, deigning to review these cooked dishes first then returning to appraise all of the nigiri.
First, during the March menus, came a fillet of sea bass hidden under a crisp of green tosaka seaweed (that doubled as the “fish skin”). Melt in your mouth tender, the fish found a wonderful accompaniment in some charred frisée. The bitter, blackened notes worked alongside a generous dusting of yuzu zest to draw out the bass’s sweetness and create a dish that was flavorfully and texturally complete. It could have very well been the best dish of all on the opening menu. But why is it coming from an unknown cook in a hidden kitchen? You imagine (or hope) the dish was designed by Chef Park, but this most successful dish misses the touch of his hand. In December, the sea bass was substituted for an arctic char served with burnt scallion ponzu. This, as far as you can remember, retained its own (charred) skin and suffered for having a bit too much crunch and too much of a carbonized flavor when compared to the bass. Still, you are glad to see the restaurant take some risks with these cooked dishes and imagine their target audience was still pleased by the char.
Following the second flight of nigiri, guests are served what might be called the “main course” of the Mako’s experience. In truth, the fact that a cooked dish could occupy such a place on the menu makes for, perhaps, the strongest argument that the restaurant does not really fit into the omakase tradition. In March, the main course took the form of roast duck breast served with enoki mushrooms, a duck sausage, and a tableside pour of warm consommé. Perfectly pink on the inside and boasting a well-crisped skin, the three slices of duck each customer receives are hard to find fault with. The lone piece of duck “sausage” is no bigger than a quarter but offers, as it should, a more concentrated duck flavor than the breast. The enoki mushrooms providing a pleasing crunch and a bit more “body” to the dish, which–thanks to the textbook consommé–is wrapped up with a pretty little bow. Guests must get to this point of the meal and wonder is they’ve been transported to another restaurant. Such is the difference in execution between the sea bass, the duck, and everything else. Like the sea bass, the duck would be replaced during your December meal. There, instead, you were served slices of squab breast adorned with the bird’s liver and a leek soubise. It, like the arctic char, offered an interesting variant on the more familiar dish; however, there is no question it is inferior to the former duck preparation. So, again, while you appreciate that Mako retools some of the cooked dishes it uses to anchor the meal, you are left wondering if the restaurant is a bit of a “two-trick pony.”
Following either the duck or squab, customers receive one more flight of nigiri before moving into a series of final sushi bites and dessert. That makes now the right moment to address the nigiri in totality, the very lifeblood of any omakase experience. While you are certainly not one to say that you know how great nigiri is made, you have eaten at several of the greatest sushi restaurants in Japan and would say you have an intuitive sense of what the chefs are going for. First, of course, there is the fish. How fresh is it? Which parts are most desirable? How artfully is the fish butchered, and how is its texture enhanced via careful scoring and shaping of a given piece? Perhaps, as in the edomae tradition, the fish will not actually be served “fresh” but, rather, marinated and preserved for some course of time to accentuate its flavor. The fish may also be topped with any number of garnishes and glazes ranging from the traditional (yuzu, ponzu, chives) to the luxurious (caviar, truffle, uni butter).
Once the fish has been cut to make nigiri, it is destined to come into contact with rice. The chef must, first, decide on a particular grain and then perfect its preparation. This means not only cooking it properly, but seasoning it just right using a carefully chosen blend of vinegar, mirin, and other things of that nature. The exact ingredients (and, more so, their ratios) that go into seasoning sushi rice are often a closely-guarded secret, as this mixture will provide the foundational flavor from which each individual piece of fish may express its own personality. Wasabi (which, at this price point, had better be “real” wasabi and freshly grated) must also be carefully wielded, as it is typically placed between the bottom of the fish and the top of the rice.
Once the rice is cooked, seasoned, and stirred (ideally, as close to service as possible), the real fun begins. Just as the fish’s flavor must be in sync with its accompaniments, the fish’s texture must be carefully molded in line with that of the rice. This, in truth, is the most difficult part of the whole operation: crafting a rice that is soft enough so as not to interfere with the melting texture of fattier fish but can also hold its form with pieces that possess a bit more “chew.” It’s all, obviously, done by hand. By feel. And, though the lightning-fast hands of any sushi chef are sure to impress the amateur onlooker, it takes an uncommon mastery to blend fish and rice in such a way where the “whole” nigiri is more than the sum of its parts. Being served by the “master” (rather than the apprentice) is really an assurance that the texture of the rice will be as good possible. For, in some restaurants, an apprentice may be trusted to slice all of the fish but never given dominion over seasoning and shaping the rice. This is also why the idea of the “sushi counter” and sitting at said counter is so important. The very best rice is always on the verge of breaking apart and must be handed to the guest and eaten as soon as possible once it leaves the chef’s hand.
Across Mako’s nigiri flights–which, as is custom, move from lighter to more heavily flavored fish–you receive bites of golden eye snapper, scallop, fluke (with truffle salt), salmon (with ponzu), horse mackerel (with ginger and chives), shrimp (with apple slice), various types of tuna, Hokkaido sea urchin, torched wagyu beef (with ramps), and glazed eel (with roasted sesame seeds). Other than the scallop–one of your very favorite pieces, and one that is hard to come by at the other omakases in town–you cannot say any of Mako’s nigiri is exceptional. You cannot even say that it’s “good.” It is average, and here’s why. The sashimi should have been the first clue that the fish, while there was certainly nothing wrong with it, did not possess any particularly captivating texture or flavor. If each of those pieces could barely be distinguished from each other when eaten plain, what hope is there once combined with the rice? At least, then, you could rely on a kick of vinegar, a touch of wasabi, or whatever other zany garnish to carry the day. At the very least, the warm rice would work to liven up the forgettable fish.
Sadly, if the fish itself is forgettable, then Mako’s sushi rice is outright bad. Rather than slice all of the fish then individually shape and serve each piece of nigiri to each of the customers in turn, Mako’s modus operandi is to make and serve nigiri six at a time. During the two chef collaboration dinners you attended (whose menus, otherwise, are too different from the restaurant’s standard offering to merit inclusion in this article), the nigiri was actually made twelve at a time. While, obviously, this decision ensures that all customers are served their sushi at the same moment, it represents an absolute cop out on rice quality. Given it takes a minute or two to assemble all of the half dozen pieces, the rice cannot be too soft. It cannot be anywhere close to the “platonic ideal” of delicately breaking apart in the mouth, for the nigiri would implode on the cutting board during its extended stay. Rather, Mako makes densely packed, lifeless rice that grows stiffer and colder the longer it sits but that does, indeed, stay together. For all you know, that rice isn’t even flavored (for any amount of vinegar is imperceptible)! The restaurant consciously chooses to embrace an “assembly line” mentality and cuts corners right in front of the guest. Most of those customers don’t know any better, but they surely deserve more for $175.
Thus, when fish and rice are finally combined during Mako’s three nigiri flights, the end result is altogether unremarkable. Bite after bite, the fish (which could also do with being sliced more generously) flounders while the rice remains a slap in the face to any sushi chef who gives a damn about their craft. All that is left are the garnishes, the gimmicks that–were they not there–one would hardly recognize they were being served different pieces. The separation of the sushi into distinct flights, then, strikes you as a bit of subterfuge. It is clearly a means to distract from the catastrophic quality at hand by using crowd-pleasing cooked dishes as a buffer. If customers were forced to endure all the pieces of nigiri in sequence, one imagines, they would revolt and walk out the there. Mako is no omakase restaurant. It is a strange Japanese-French hybrid masquerading as a sushi counter. It’s a sushi “side show” that is put on while the real work occurs in the hidden kitchen where the man behind the curtain creates food people do want to eat. Why is all this song and dance necessary? Why bastardize a beautiful cuisine just to hawk cooked sea bass and roast duck? Especially when Yūgen sits minutes away in desperate need of patrons to appreciate it’s comparably thoughtful, dynamic contemporary Japanese fare.
You are sure of your judgment of Mako but, nonetheless, wish you could say you had properly eaten B.K. Park’s food. On your first visit to the restaurant, you were served, as mentioned, by his apprentice. Same for your second visit. Then, during the two chef collaboration events, B.K. made nigiri twelve at a time for the entire counter, serving them in flights of three that left the rice suffering even greater rigor mortis than usual. Certainly, that was not Chef Park at his best (though, clearly, this confirmed he has little care for the quality of his rice). On your fifth, final, and fateful visit–one that you planned at B.K.’s urging after he noticed you had only returned for the special events–the chef was not even in the building. You were seated, indeed, at the other end of the counter only to be faced with that very same apprentice for the third time running. At the other end of the counter, an even more junior apprentice commandeered the cutting board. Can you believe Mako is charging such a high price for that? A reservation at Omakase Yume or Kyōten is a guarantee that you will eat one man’s food, that you will indulge in one man’s vision face to face. A reservation at Mako, instead, only secures you a sleek setting, a bit of song and dance, an anonymous meal by an anonymous staff that, nonetheless, the fine dining dilettante will happily check off of their bucket list. They will pretend they have tried the art of omakase. They will feel adventurous; they will feel cultured. They will eat the bullshit that B.K. is serving up and–like Michelin, like the Tribune–they will be oh-so-desperate to say they like it. But Chicago deserves better.
After completing the third of three nigiri flights arrives a “seasonal handroll” invariably made from tuna. Cut into chunks, the fish’s texture is actually a bit more appealing than its sashimi and nigiri forms. The seaweed wrapped around it is crisp enough to cleanly bite through, but it still sticks to the roof of your mouth a bit. The rice, of course, is still there, and it finally finds its best use as a bit of filler used to keep the handroll together. All in all, it’s not a bad effort when compared to the other sushi you’d been served. However, no handroll–no matter how good it is–can paper over the problems with Mako’s sushi. For that handroll draws the savory section of the menu to a close, and diners only have a couple sweet bites remaining to try and redeem the experience. First, the tamago, an ethereally light, slightly sweet Japanese egg omelette that demands nearly the same mastery as the sushi rice to get right. It arrives, as is custom, in the shape of a rectangular bite placed before the diner to formally end the sushi sequence. Ideally, the tamago should have a slightly browned outer skin, a custardy inner texture, and a flavor that is predominantly “egg-y” with just enough sweetness to provide a pleasing finish. At Mako, the tamago looks the part but tastes more like stale pound cake, with a texture that’s a bit too chewy and a flavor that tastes neither of egg nor sugar quite enough.
Next, as a proper transition towards dessert, arrives what might be termed a “palate cleanser.” On your first two visits, that meant Asian pear paired with ginger, passion fruit, and shiso. On the last, it was apple paired with tencha tea and hyssop. Both, you believe, took the form of a slush or foam or sorbet or some mix between barely frozen textures. You’re sure the bite did the job of jostling your palate awake well enough, but you cannot, otherwise, comment critically on this course. You can, however, praise the actual dessert (and the last course of the menu). It is comprised of a puck of Japanese sweet potato that is seductively covered in a whiskey caramel and paired with a dollop of crème diplomate crowned with crispy genmai rice. It’s the only dish that has not changed at all since Mako’s opening, and you think it is for good reason. It captures everything one loves from a warm slice of pumpkin or pecan pie. In many ways, the combination of soft sweet potato and crispy brown rice combines the two together. This dessert is a surefire crowd-pleaser and a clever tip of the cap towards Western culinary tradition that, nonetheless, makes use of Japanese ingredients. The dish also, again, reflects that the restaurant’s talent is located in its kitchen rather than at its counter. The sea bass/arctic char, duck/squab, and dessert could be the makings of an interesting Japanese-French restaurant, but they have no business headlining an omakase.
You hope you have not been too cruel in your criticism of Mako, but you also think that high-end sushi presents a bit of a pitfall for those who are new to fine dining. For one, the average American–particularly in these parts–is raised on “strip mall” sushi and will simply be delighted to be served anything not doused in mayo and eel sauce. Two, the spectacle of having a sushi chef working before them will likely obscure any technical flaws with the sushi itself. Unless a customer has carefully contrasted competing omakases, they simply will not possess a point of reference to know that anything is wrong. To know that something could be better. But who are you to take issue with what B.K. Park does if most customers–whether due to the sushi itself or simply the cooked dishes–leave Mako feeling content? I suppose you are someone who cares about Chicago’s culinary scene and how cuisines are represented within it. You are someone who feels concerned that Mako is the standard bearer for “Michelin-starred” sushi in this city.
In the final analysis, Mako’s manner of operating simply strikes you as cynical, a mere cash-in on the omakase craze by someone who has reputation, who has resources, but whose talent is below the stage he has set for himself. And that is if you’re lucky enough to have Chef Park cooking for you! To pass your customers–who, mind you, are paying $175 for the privilege–off to the apprentice, to the apprentice’s apprentice almost strikes you as criminal. Mako might look the part. The staff is pleasant enough. The drinks are decent, and so are a few of the menu’s dishes. But this is not an omakase restaurant. This is not a passion project. This is not Chicago sushi at its finest (or even at its most tolerable). Mako stands a case where Michelin and men like Phil Vettel are afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. At a technical level, the restaurant’s rice would be laughed out of any sushi-loving city. So flawed is its manner of preparation that it seems as though the team is not even trying. B.K. Park had all the time in the world to teach Chicagoans how to better appreciate his craft, but he only rose to the challenge once interlopers raised the bar for him. He is not worthy of running a sushi counter in this city, and–in holding a Michelin star–Mako will inevitably tarnish Chicago’s name to anybody with any experience eating sushi elsewhere in the country or, to wit, on Armitage Avenue in this very city.