photo credit: Sammy Faze Photography
You might have heard a few things about Kumiko: that it’s an omakase spot in the West Loop, or that it’s related to one of those tasting menu places you always hear about. All of that might make you think you’re heading into a situation where the tablecloths are ironed 14 times a day and your server was tragically born without a sense of humor. But after you’ve spent some time here you’ll realize that isn’t the case - a lot of restaurants will bend over backward to make sure you’re comfortable, and many places (especially in this neighborhood) let their high-end menus full of complex dishes do all the talking. Kumiko is one of the rare spots where you’ll find both.
Kumiko is from some of the same people as Oriole, which has been the benchmark for a serious Chicago restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously for a long time. This restaurant is split into two separate experiences: Kumiko, the main-floor cocktail bar with an a la carte menu of small bites, and Kikko, an eight-seat bar in the basement serving a seven-course omakase menu. Each one is equally outstanding, so choosing which one to go to probably depends more on the type of night you’re looking for. If you’re celebrating an anniversary or a promotion, Kikko is $130 per person and the food and drinks here definitely qualify as a special occasion meal. But for an everyday date night spot, Kumiko has delicious and unique cocktails and a food menu where most dishes are under $10.
Kumiko is a cocktail bar first and foremost, and the drinks are fantastic. You’ll find things like sake flights as well as some more complex drinks like the Triptych, made with four types of Japanese liquor and sweet potato. Or you can order a component flight, where a cocktail is served with sidecars of the sake and tea that inspired the drink. This peek into the creative process makes the actual drink even better, like if you hung out in the green room after a Bon Iver show and Justin Vernon played you his favorite Dylan songs.
The same precision that makes the drinks great extends to the food, too. While several dishes seem like they might’ve been assembled using tweezers and some sort of edible super glue, there’s none of the seriousness you might expect to accompany that. Everyone at Kumiko - from the servers to the chefs - seems focused on making sure you enjoy yourself, and that’s part of what makes a meal here such a great experience. The other part is that the food is really damn good. Nearly everything is worth trying, but plan on getting the sweetbreads katsu, the gyudon, and at least one of the steam buns - we wish they were party-sub-length instead of gone in three bites.
Since it’s secluded in a small room downstairs, Kikko feels more subdued than Kumiko, but still not stuffy. The chef down here might tell you that the wagyu you’re eating is prepared with the same fungus that infects ants’ brains and turns them into zombies. And it’s a fungus so delicious that the next time you watch Planet Earth and see insects crawling all over it, you’ll just think back to that wagyu dish and be upset that such a great mushroom is going to waste. In fact, you’ll probably spend a lot of time reminiscing about what you eat here. Because Kumiko is like a pro golfer who stops to kiss your baby before sinking the winning putt, or a brain surgeon who dances to Earth Wind & Fire in the operating room - what they’re doing is memorable, but so is the way they’re doing it.
The menus at both Kumiko and Kikko change regularly, but here are some of the highlights from the a la carte menu:
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The granita combines with the brine to keep these light and salty. There’s an option to add smoked trout roe, which we’d recommend for the added texture.
This bite looks and tastes like it was assembled by tiny, talented Lego chefs. And it’s excellent.
There are short rib, pork belly, and shiitake buns, and we recommend all three. But if we had to pick, the short rib is our favorite, with a black garlic glaze and beef fat hollandaise.
Not our favorite bite. The liver mousse is served on a cracker and covered with a fine miso powder, which sounds great, but ends up tasting a lot like the cheddar sandwich crackers you find at a gas station.
The closest thing to an entree in Kumiko’s upstairs dining room and a must-order.
These sweetbreads are as thin as schnitzel, and look and taste like the ultimate chicken nugget.
Japanese Milk Bread
The only dish that appears on both menus. Right around when the honey ice cream started soaking into the bruleed toast is when we made our next reservation.