The concept of Chizakaya is well thought out but lacking execution. It would be great to have a go-to sake bar with great small plates, a change of scenery if you will. What we found was an interesting and difficult menu to navigate serving food most people did not know existed. There is talent behind the counter, some flavors came out nicely, but I argue the talent is misused. Our drinks were pretty good; I enjoyed trying a few sakes, Russ had their version of a mojito while Erica sampled the beer on tap. Our food was hit or miss, mostly just confusing.
We were served an "offering" consisting of a croquette of pork. It was nice touch and tasty. Our first couple of "small plates" included string beans, daily gyoza selection (pork) and agedashi tofu. I liked the string beans more than my table-mates; they had a nice kick but drenched in the teriyaki sauce. The gyoza was pretty good with the dough having an interesting texture. The sauce wasn't very flavorful though. Russ and I enjoyed the tofu, though it was not the best agedashi I've ever had. I prefer a stronger flavored sauce with my tofu since it can be quite bland without. The challenge we faced was ordering what we could decipher as something recognizable. Those three starters were just a small sample of the menu, but a large sample of what looked appealing. We became more adventurous as the meal progressed.
The second round of food featured our favorite dish, blue crab meat served with rice in the style of risotto. It was bar far the best thing we ordered and priced well at $9. I wish there were more noodle/rice dishes on the menu, only three seems to little. After ordering relatively "safe" dishes, Russ led the charge to explore the menu into uncharted territory. There is a section of the menu devoted to food served on a stick. The options are vast, but we went with sirloin steak (for Erica), sweet sausage, beef tongue, and chicken skins. You could get even more adventurous with gizzards and livers and the like, but this was a good start for our table.
The steak was tasty, especially with the dollop of wasabi. The sweet sausage was kind of weird, especially since we didn't know what the sausage was made from (probably a good thing). I could not stomach or finish the chicken skins. I don't like skins on my poultry with the meat so I'm not surprised to dislike the skins alone on a skewer. To my surprise, the beef tongue was quite good. You would not know it's tongue because it looks like regular meat, tasted salty but with nice flavor.
From L to R: beef tongue, chicken skins, sweet sausage, sirloin steak
The final dish was something other people have talked about: hamachi and bone marrow (above). This was the biggest disappointment. The most expensive dish we ordered ($12) was the least impressive. The hamachi lacked meaningful flavor and the bone marrow added nothing. I liked the garlic chips but that was about all I liked. Bummer.
Chizakaya is not a complete disaster, I like the idea but it is too hard to navigate and figure out what to order. Russ asked the simple question: would you come back and what would you order again? I don't have good answers to either question. I like the pub feel and sake list, but that's not good enough. The funky food on a stick thing is cool but only so much. It's too early to tell what the future Izakaya scene will look like in Chicago, but since it's a huge success around the country, someone is going to nail it sooner or later.