Kai Zan review

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Octopus salad (left) and oyster shooter (right)
Photo by Zara Husaini

It’s appropriate that my first post on this blog is a review of what was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Chicago.

I’m a huge sushi fan and while Chicago has some unbelievable restaurants but great sushi is hard to come by here. Blame it on the lack of ocean around here.

But Kai Zan, a tiny spot tucked inconspicuously onto a street in Humboldt Park, crushes the widely held assumption that Chicago is without a great Japanese restaurant. I went in to my Friday night dinner there expecting amazing things (Kai Zan came highly recommended by a friend and all the online reviews I came across were glowing as well) and I wasn’t disappointed. At least not by the food, but I’ll get to the restaurant’s flaws in time.

We chose the omakase option, which is essentially a chef’s choice tasting. For $50, this choice includes 13 courses. It’s an amazing way to try a little bit of everything and it’s a great value. Squeamish eaters may have a hard time swallowing some of the more adventurous additions – literally and figuratively – but the restaurant said they could accommodate food allergies or restrictions.

The meal started with shooters, tiny martini glasses filled with an oyster and a quail egg yolk, both raw. They came floating in a salty, acidic liquid. Both presentation and taste were great. From there, we tried red snapper carpaccio, a maki roll, and other incredibly inventive dishes.

The waiter told us our $50 tasting options was over after we polished off an octopus salad (be careful with this one – it’s drenched in wasabi,) a shrimp and mushroom combo topped with spicy sauce, a bacon-wrapped mushroom and a jalapeno stuffed with cream cheese and uni, then deep-fried. We had the option of adding more courses to the lineup; we decided to add dessert and call it a night. Then our waiter showed up with a special maki roll and told us we they were adding one more course for us. I didn’t complain.

Overall the meal was fantastic. The food was definitely the highlight, and while the place is off the beaten path and adorable, there are some kinks that could be addressed.

I’m a firm believer in long, drawn-out meals. Obviously not every meal can take upwards of two hours, but if you’re opting for a tasting menu, the pace should be relaxed.

Our meal was definitely rushed. The waiter brought out courses as they were ready, which meant we were cramming multiple dishes into our tiny portion of space at the sushi bar. It was overwhelming and a little unprofessional, but it seems like the restaurant itself is just too small to keep dishes on deck until diners are ready to move on to the next course. Our entire meal was just over an hour, which is short for something of this nature. They book reservations in hour and a half increments; we weren’t seat for our 8:30 reservation until almost 9, and I could tell they wanted us out before 10. I guess at such a small place, it’s important to fit as many customers in as possible in order to make money.

There’s also the matter of Kai Zan’s accessibility. I had to do a bit of digging to find a way to make a reservation, as the staff often neglects to answer the phone and there’s very little online presence. I used seatme.com to secure a spot – I definitely recommend getting a reservation if you plan on dining here. The dining area only seats about 22 people, so tables are hard to get.

But flaws aside, Kai Zan is a truly remarkable dining destination. It was a really delicious, fun meal. Bonus points go to our server for his relentless honesty. While debating between ordering two portions of the mango mousse or one mousse and one other dessert option, we asked him if the restaurant’s green tea ice cream was good.

“No, not really,” he replied.

I think you should:

Try it. Now. And definitely go for the omakase. Each course is  teeny tiny, so it’s really a perfect amount of food. And it’s not at all expensive, at least for Chicago. A no-brainer.

Dine with: A significant other. This place is seriously intimate. It isn’t loud, so holding a conversation is easy. Definitely not the best choice for a group.

Wear: Something trendy. The crowd here is young, attractive and put-together.

Bring: Alcohol, if you’d like. It’s BYO.

Plan ahead: Secure a reservation early. Seatme.com is probably the easiest way to do this.

Go on: A weeknight. The meal was a great way to kick off a Friday night, but I think everything would have been better had we been able to sit at a table instead of the sushi bar. I think a less popular night might make it a little easier to do this.

Order: The escolar pearls were my favorite. Tiny slivers of seared white tuna over balls of rice, topped in truffle oil, spicy mayo and chilli oil – they were so delicate and delicious. I’m always pro-dessert, and the mango mousse we ordered was such a great way to end the meal.

Kai Zan

2557 W Chicago Ave

Chicago, IL 60622

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6 thoughts on “Kai Zan review

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