This has been the worst year of Jason Chan's life, and the best.
Fifty-one weeks ago, the restaurateur behind the late, great Butter (an exceedingly sophisticated restaurant where I first got to taste Ryan Poli's food) and Urban Union (which had an impressive, if brief, run) was diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma of the throat. It was his mother's birthday.
Surgery to remove his lymph nodes and tonsils took place the next day. Months of radiation treatment and chemotherapy followed. Chan, a martial arts instructor and fitness fanatic, lost 64 pounds and all his teeth.
And all the while, he and B.K. Park, the redoubtable sushi chef who put Arami on the map, were working on a restaurant.
"I never once stayed home," Chan says. "I would do radiation at 8:30 and be here by 9:30; I brought an IV stand with me so I could work. I couldn't do a lot of stuff physically, but (the restaurant) helped me heal, because it gave me something to concentrate on."
Social media being what it is, Chan's ordeal was no secret.
"I don't say this to brag, but I feel like the most loved man in Chicago," he says. "So many people were supporting me and loving me. My girlfriend moved in and took care of me; friends started a foundation that paid my bills. I'm a very grateful man."
Juno, named after Park's son, opened May 31, and the best part of Chan's year commenced. Ambitious in its reach, impressive, if imperfect, in its execution, Juno presents sushi and other seafood dishes with a precision and sophistication that few other restaurants even attempt, much less pull off. I'm not ready to say Juno is the best sushi restaurant in Chicago, but it unquestionably belongs in the conversation.
Walk in the front door, and you'd be forgiven for double-checking your Google map. The room is tiny, a noisy jumble of host stand, bar, glass-door fridge (holding sake and other beverages) and a few tables — not promising. But there's Chan by the host stand, leading you to the rear dining room, a pristine sea of white that takes up three-quarters of the overall space, a room with soaring ceilings, bare natural-wood tables, a beautiful wood- and onyx-trimmed sushi bar and pretty parasols hanging beneath the skylight wells. A couple of pieces of art are actually gussied-up acoustic panels, an attempt to deal with sometimes high noise levels.
The menu is grouped in the usual categories, but what lurks in those categories sets Juno well above the norm. There are goodies all over the place, but I'd direct you toward a few dishes that have turned into signatures. One is the smoked sashimi, in which the fish (maguro with puffed rice, hamachi with freeze-dried corn and shiitakes, or salmon with sweet soy) arrive under a dome filled with applewood smoke. The dome lifts, your nostrils take in all that rich, sweet smoke, and though the sashimi itself is only gently smoky, the stage is set. It's a very nice dish, and a real attention-getter as it's brought to your table.
Another specialty is kama, referring to the "collar" of the fish; there's a little work involved in retrieving the meat from the somewhat bony cut, but the flesh is so sweet, it's well worth the effort. Hamachi (amberjack) kama shows up on the menu frequently, and madai (red bream) will appear from time to time. Simply grilled and dressed with a little sea salt and lemon, this is a dish to seek out.
Finally there is chawan mushi, a savory Japanese egg custard. At Juno, the chawan mushi might contain lobster and nebrodini bianco mushrooms, or crab meat and shiitake mushrooms. Either way, you're in for a treat.
One of the best strategies is to opt for the omakase experience, a chef's-choice menu. There will always be a couple of sashimi plates, a progression of individual nigiri and a few other specialties — much as the menu offers — but you'll get a few creations that never appear on the menu. It's a pricey proposition ($100 to $125 on average, beverage extra) and can be arranged only by calling the restaurant (48 hours' notice required), but it provides a front-and-center view of Park in action. And because so few omakase seats are available on a given day (I've never seen more than five at once), you'll get plenty of direct interaction with Park; it's as though he's creating for you alone, and it's tough to put a price tag on that.
My omakase began with a trio of stacked glass dishes; one held pieces of giant snail, presented with radish, tomato, a sprinkling of sea salt and micro cilantro leaves; beneath that was grilled octopus, impressive in its charcoal notes, with razor-thin cucumber, shiso leaf and sea-urchin paste; then steamed abalone (the steaming mellowed the abalone's briny flavor and rendered the texture almost silky) sliced and served in its shell, dressed with a lively pickled soy sauce. Then there was a beautiful plate of madai, which picked up brightness from an assortment of pickled white strawberries, fennel and ramps; and a chef's choice sashimi platter, as pretty as a floral arrangement, offering a progression of mild to full-flavored fish. The omakase version of the smoked sashimi featured fatty tuna wrapped around foie gras and yamaimo (Japanese yam), tied with a string of chive and topped with caviar and gold leaf. Quite the elegant little bite.
The progression of nigiri pieces is thrilling. Park has a very gentle touch with his rice, delicate in its sweet vinegar flavor and barely holding together. The rice serves as a gentle foil to rich scallop, touched with black Hawaiian salt and yuzu juice, and oily kohada, with its glistening, silvery skin. Gently broiled wagyu beef (Japan A-1, Chan says) is gently broiled; king crab with kobe-fat butter, more assertively torched. Toward the end, there might be a tako-tuna maki roll (understated and excellent) or the same combination in a hand roll.
Beverages include a brief but well-chosen (and modestly priced) wine list, a handful of craft cocktails (the Aviasian, a sort of Aviator cocktail with a wasabi kick, makes a nice starter), Japanese craft beers and about 40 sakes, categorized by flavor profile. Servers, who will improve with more confidence (they're sometimes a bit skittish, though always eager to please), are helpful sake guides.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Juno
2638 N. Lincoln Ave.; 872-206-8662
Tribune rating: 3 stars