My wife took a bite of the scallop-crab motoyaki, one of the specialties at Kabocha, and smiled beatifically.
"Now this is a signature dish," she said happily. "This rocks."
My wife doesn't dazzle all that easily (though she married me; make what you will of that), but this particular nibble, which coddles scallops and crabmeat in a rich ponzu aioli (torched at the finish, for a creme-brulee effect), has been Shin Thompson's go-to dish for a long time. It was a fixture on the chef-tasting menus he once proffered at Bonsoiree restaurant, the Logan Square fine-dining BYO that earned Thompson a Michelin star, and it was the dish he chose to feature at Chicago Gourmet in 2010.
Until recently, sampling this and other Thompson treats took a certain commitment — $85 or so for his tasting menu, even more for a Chicago Gourmet ticket. But at Kabocha, which Thompson opened six months ago in partnership with Ryan O'Donnell (Gemini Bistro, Rustic House), the scallop-crab motoyaki is a $10 item on the a la carte menu. The menu also provides a la carte availability to Thompson's classic "Duck, Duck, Goose" creation, though the dish has evolved from its days as a bento-box course at Bonsoiree. The current iteration is a composition of seared duck breast, squares of duck confit bound by a crunchy panko crust, seared goose foie gras and triangles of rosti potato. Contrasting all this savory richness is an excruciatingly tart gooseberry jam, which delivers a real jolt to the taste buds while adhering nicely to the dish's theme.
These are Thompson dishes everyone already knows; here are a few more that everyone should. His wagyu beef tartare is seasoned with a blend of soy, porcini powder, nori, minced garlic, umeboshi and truffle oil (Thompson dubs it "umami paste") that gives the beef a deeply satisfying flavor; it's hard to get excited about beef tartare when every restaurant short of IHOP does it, but I'd argue that this version is worth a second look. Sashimi moriawase is a five-fish progression that might include hirame with garlic and ponzu, salmon with shallot-wasabi vinaigrette and/or togarashi-dusted akami tuna.
One of the most novel surf-and-turf dishes in town is a composition of roasted bone marrow and plancha-griddled octopus; the indulgent, fatty bone marrow is balanced by the lean octopus, and pieces of compressed plum, ginger crisps, pickled garlic, red watercress and brioche croutons add complexity and visual dazzle. And what might otherwise be a pedestrian dish — bright-red slices of wagyu zabuton (a steaklike cut from the short rib) — is rendered interesting by chewy mochi spaetzle, parsnip-nori puree and dabs of "death mustard," wherein Thompson reconstitutes mustard powder with rice-wine vinegar and a touch of honey. (The name is a pretty good indicator of its potency.)
In previous visits, highlights included panko-wrapped sweet-potato croquettes, each topped with a dab of caper-shiso aioli and a sliver of pickled Fresno chili; thick slices of crisped pork belly with chili-yuzu glaze; delicate rabbit-shiitake dumplings sprinkled with Thai basil and a very pleasant shabu-shabu, a table-participation exercise in quick-simmering prime rib-eye rolls, blue prawns, Tuscan kale and maitake mushrooms in a mirin-dashi broth. I miss them already.
Desserts tend to be muted in sweetness and very artistic. Offerings include a hot banana-bread-pudding with shiso-laced butterscotch, opposite fig ice cream over candied nuts; an upright triangle of chocolate torte, perked up with Thai chili and soothed by grilled-peach sorbet; and sesame-vanilla ice cream with macadamia nuts and chocolate tuile.
If you wish to relinquish decision-making to the chef, here are a couple of ways: The six-course tasting menu, $68, combines menu and off-menu dishes, and the kaiseki table, $110, offers a chef-designed, 10-course menu available to exactly two people per evening and must be arranged in advance.
Two weeks ago, Thompson announced (via social media) a two-night event at which a five- or six-course menu would be available (priced at $50 and $60). The chef expects to do more such menus in the future. One off-menu dish from that menu was a hamachi-belly poke with diced apples and chili-laced Asian pear coulis; I sincerely hope this dish makes future appearances.
Compared with the 28-chair confines of the late Bonsoiree, Kabocha (which takes its name from the Asian squash) is practically cavernous. There's a 75-seat dining room, gently lit by balloon-ish chandeliers (which resemble kabochas, come to think of it); a nine-seat raw bar where almost nobody sits, probably because it looks like a prep station; and a dark, 20-seat bar where, among other things, one can get a big bowl of ramen and a beer for $10. Reason enough for an after-work stop.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Kabocha
952 W. Lake St.
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $18-$35
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.