Welcome to the Japanese gastropub scene.
And what a welcome it is! Izakaya Mita ( 1960 N. Damen Ave.; IzakayaMita.com ) impressively combines a cordial atmosphere with authentic and tasty items. ( Note: According to the restaurant's menu, izakaya are "cozy Japanese public houses" where people gather to eat, drink and socialize. )
The restaurant offers everything from shared plates to full-blown entrees. Our dinner started with a wonderful dish, spinach goma ae ( spinach in sweet black sesame ), and continued with marinated burdock root. After trying those chilled dishes, we dove into what was probably one of my favorite items of the evening: okonomiyaki with butabara ( pancakes with pork belly ). I'm particularly fond of pork belly, but this was expertly done; moreover, the bonito flakes on top were reacting to the heat, giving the impression that the dish was somehow alive. It's an experience I won't soon forget.
Something my dining partner won't soon forget are the shishito peppers. Co-owner Helen Mita warned us that one in 10 is really hot, and you can't tell which one it is: sort of a gustatory Russian roulette. Well, my friend found itand Mita quickly soothed her palate with a tiny bowl of whipped cream.
Then, we tried items from the bincho-tan grill ( which utilizes charcoal made from oak ). The kebabs were pork belly, chicken skin and dark-meat chickenwith each tasting better than the previous.
A sakana ( rice slider with fried fish and wafu tartar sauce ) provided some tang, and the saba ( a "hearty bite" that's a broiled mackerel filet ) smelled fishy, but was absolutely delicious.
Another highlight was the noodle dish hiyashi chuka, an intoxicating offering consisting of chilled ramen with tamago, wakame, cucumber, negi and sliced chashu pork in a soy dashi vinaigrette. And the meal didn't flag with the banana tempura with pineapple sauce, which was sufficiently light and tasty. Lastly, co-owner Brian Mita ( son of Helen ) "gifted" us with an umeboshi ( pickled plum ); it's an acquired taste and you definitely don't want to take a large bite out of itbut I grew to like it.
As for the "pub" aspect of the gastropub, we tried a flight of wonderful sakes ( Konteki "Tears of the Dawn" Junmai Daiginjo, Narutotai "Drunken Snapper" Ginjo Nama Genshu and Karen "Coy" Junmai ) that ranged in taste from bright to earthy.
Would I recommend Izakaya Maya? The answer is a hearty "yes." From the sake and amazing dishes to the wonderful service ( Thank you, Chottip! ), this is a place to visit ( and revisit ).