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DISH: Weekly Dining Guide in Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Arami ( 1829 W. Chicago Ave.; ) is the best Japanese restaurant I've been to since ... well, its brother eatery Ani, which I visited a few weeks ago.

However, that is still very high praise, with Arami and Ani a step above most of the other Japanese places in Chicago.

Getting there is no problem—but you will have to pay attention to make sure you don't bypass the entrance. Arami ( which seats 90 people, including a private room that accommodates 20 ) has a nondescript exterior in a sea of nondescript exteriors along this stretch of West Town. Upon entering, you'll encounter an unpretentious atmosphere and staff—which make the quality of the cuisine even more of an unexpected delight and which can put even the most intimidated of diners at ease.

My dining companion and I started with drinks, as she had a beer and I had a Scarborough Fair cocktail, a very tasty concoction consisting of cinnamon clove syrup, lemon, thyme-infused Effen Vodka, rosemary and Asian pear. ( By the way, if it's sake you're craving, Arami definitely has a wide variety of that as well. )

Cuisine-wise, things started solidly with the seared hotate—scallops with Japanese mushrooms and ponzu brown butter. However, things really took off with the dish that followed: maitake mushrooms and Berkshire pork belly cooked on a robata grill. The mushrooms were done well, but I took even more of a shine to the belly, which was especially flavorful.

The next course was a selection of sashimi involving bluefin tuna, Japanese red sea bream, salmon and yellowtail. The selections were all wonderful ( especially the salmon )—and the server enhanced the experience even more by advising which pieces should be eaten first and which should be accompanied with the soy sauce.

The maki was probably my favorite course of the evening ( with dessert and the ramen vying for a close second ). We tried the ebi tempura asparagus, an intoxicating olio of flavors and textures with shrimp tempura, spicy salmon, asparagus, spicy mayo and aonori ( seaweed ). However, the Arami ramen was pretty impressive, too—with pork belly, soft egg, grilled enoki and house tsukemono ( preserved vegetables ). Even in this age of ramen-mania, this dish was better than just about all others I've tried.

Lastly, there was the combination of black-sesame ice cream and cookies with vanilla ice cream and miso caramel—a dish that was experimental and delicious. The ice cream's taste resembled coffee, and the cookies were the perfect complement.

Chefs de cuisine Ajay Popli ( hot kitchen ) and Nelson Vinansaca ( sushi ) acquitted themselves admirably, to say ( or write ) the least. Do not pass by Arami—it's worth the trip.

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