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A selection of Katana’s pristine nigiri from executive sushi chef Robert Juan, originally from the Midwest.

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Dinner and a Show

By Lisa Shames

Photography by Anthony Tahlier

11.28.17

L.A. import Katana aims to entertain and astound as much with its atmosphere as its delicious, expansive menu.

THERE IS NOTHING subtle about Katana, the new Japanese restaurant in River North—and that’s exactly the point. The eye candy starts mere steps from the door of the 13,000-square-foot space, formerly Bin 36, with the large square bar and the soft yellow-hued light surrounding it. Those futuristic-looking machines on the bar that chill glasses instantaneously with a glowing mist of CO2 add to the show. Freestanding curvy blond-wood booths dot the expansive dining room. There’s a moss and rock garden in the middle of the space and amoeba-shaped light fixtures overhead. Not far away, the sushi bar offers the six diners sitting at it a more serene, albeit still lively, setting.

“I tell my friends, it’s like we designed a restaurant James Bond would take his girlfriend to,” says General Manager Jason Chan (Juno, RPM Steak), who was brought on by Innovative Dining Group, in part to give local cred to the operation. (IDG also has a Katana on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, which opened 15 years ago, and in Dubai, as well as other Japanese-leaning restaurants.) “Nowadays, you have to entertain your guests.”

Part of the entertainment should include a cocktail from mixology vet Michael Simon (Acadia, Celeste). I’d recommend Beerus the Destroyer, Simon’s version of an Old Fashioned that swaps in mezcal for bourbon. A riesling-infused agave nectar adds an unexpected but pleasing viscosity to the drink. There’s also an extensive sake-by-the-glass program and Japanese whiskeys.

Katana’s multipage menu takes a something-for-everybody approach with raw, cooked, traditional and more modern Japanese dishes to choose from. (Those who want to skip the required reading can opt for a custom omakase experience.) Katana imported two of its L.A. chefs, Jose Melendez (executive chef) and Robert Juan (executive sushi chef), to preside over the kitchen here, although the Chicago menu isn’t just a carbon copy of the original.

The seats in front of Katana’s multilevel robata allow diners a front-row seat to all the grilling action.

The shishito peppers topped with soy-garlic sauce and a pile of bonito shavings from the Starters section of the menu are a good dish to whet your appetite. They’re cooked longer than other versions around town, which adds a subtle sweetness. Raw fish is represented here beyond the specialty maki and nigiri offerings.

Yellowtail sashimi gets paired with a zesty dressing of ginger, jalapeno and warm olive oil that highlights the buttery fish while still letting its flavor shine through. 

Hot appetizers include a terrific Japanese eggplant and baby bok choy dish that ups the comfort level with a slightly sweet miso and honey sauce. A supertender piece of grilled short rib comes topped with crunchy slices of radish and microherbs. The Japanese dish agedashi tofu is represented here too, but instead of a large deep-fried cube of soybean curd, you’ll find furikake-crusted tofu logs sitting in an earthy shiitake- and coconut-infused broth.

Still hungry? I hope so, as there are 30-plus items from the robata grill—some skewered, some not—to choose from. In keeping with this traditional Japanese style of cooking, the items are, for the most part, adorned simply, with only the subtle smoke produced by the superhot binchotan charcoal for enhancement. Play it safe with chicken meatballs and aged rib-eye or get adventurous with chicken heart or cartilage. You could also order larger plates from the grill, including bone-in filet mignon and jidori chicken that’s smartly paired with ginger relish and a yuzo-chili paste.

If sushi is your focus point, head to the sushi bar. There you have the option of ordering from the server or sushi chefs. Opt for the latter and your chef just might say “Whatever you want, I’m here for you,” as mine did. On my visit, that meant some wonderful saba (a mackerel family member) and kanpachi (amberjack) nigiri, both of which had an ideal ratio of rice to fish. And even though I’m a sushi purist, I quite liked the shima maki, a seared yellowtail roll gussied up with mango, jalapeno and avocado.

The entertainment factor doesn’t end with the savory dishes. On first glance, the Carnival dessert looks like a plate of cotton candy. But once the server drizzles it with vodka and sets it aflame, the mound of cotton candy disappears to reveal a brownie topped with meringue spikes and sugared pretzels hiding underneath. Enjoy the show.  

Braised and grilled short rib topped with thinly sliced radishes and microherbs, and sitting in a puddle of spicy gochujang sauce.

KATANA
339 N. Dearborn St., 312.877.5544

Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily

Starters, $7-$12; cold dishes, $16-$42; hot dishes, $9-$48; robata grill, $3-$225; rolls, $8-$22; dessert, $8-$14