A New Gold Coast Restaurant Challenges Sushi Bro Culture

© Sushi Boutique Sushi Boutique bringing bites like the Bougie Tartar to Claridge House.

The New York-based team behind Lincoln Park’s trendy speakeasy-style omakase spot will expand its local footprint this weekend with a sleek new sushi restaurant inside a Gold Coast hotel. Sushi Boutique, a slightly more casual sister spot to Sushi Suite 202 in Lincoln Park, has a Saturday, October 2 opening date inside Claridge House at 1244 N. Dearborn Parkway. The space previously housed Juniper Spirits & Oysters, which closed last year during the pandemic.

Sushi Boutique aims to provide a more relaxed experience than its high-end predecessor and appeal to diners are still learning about Japanese food. Executive chef Jordan Dominguez (Sushi Suite 202, Noyane, Momotaro) will feature a sushi menu with familiar maki like spicy tuna alongside handrolls, chef-selected “omakase boxes,” and rolls like the $25 Bougie Tartar (A5 wagyu, gobo kinpira, shishito) and the $50 Y.U.L.O. (botan ebi, king crab, shiso, uni, truffle, caviar).

Tucked inside Claridge House’s 500-square-foot ground floor space, the restaurant will seat eight along the bar and 20 two-top seats indoors. An outdoor patio space is also in the works but those plans are not yet finalized.

© Sushi Boutique/Barry Brecheisen The intimate space is well-suited to socializing.

Dominguez also plans to offer a menu inspired by izakaya, highlighting classics of the pub genre like kushiyaki (grilled skewers) with bites of miso black cod and glazed trumpet mushroom kabayaki. “We’re trying to make [the menus] more approachable, so once we have general consensus with guests — ‘we trust these guys’ — we can push the funky dishes,” Dominguez says.

Sushi Suite 202, the brand’s first Chicago outpost, debuted in January 2020 inside a second-floor room at the Hotel Lincoln. The six-seat omakase restaurant features 17 courses over an hour for $125 a head. It’s a fancier experience than its processor Sushi by Bou, the New York mini-chain that serves $50 omakase meals in 30 minutes. Founded in 2018, the brand drew criticism for its its lauded and controversial chef, David Bouhadana, who is white but has used a stereotypical Japanese accent while speaking English to customers. The company operates outposts in its home city, as well as Miami and New Jersey, and plans to open another new venue in Chicago by the end of 2021.

In another wrinkle, Sushi Boutique is designed to appeal to women, Dominguez adds. Sushi Suite has accumulated a largely male clientele — perhaps the Chicago counterpart to New York’s notorious Sushi Bros, drawn by the cachet of a pricy dinner. Instead, the new restaurant aims to attract groups of women who want to socialize and relax in their surroundings. “They want good food and to be left alone, to have fun and be themselves,” he says.

© Sushi Boutique/Barry Brecheisen Wagyu Yakiniku (marinated A5)
© Sushi Boutique/Barry Brecheisen Pleasure Trip (wagyu tataki, negi toro, king crab)
© Sushi Boutique/Barry Brecheisen Hachiman (blanco tequila, iichiko shochu, red grapes, yuzu, egg white)

Restaurants all across the country have employed varying tactics to appeal to women. Some genres, like steakhouses, are tainted with a legacy of “gentlemen-only” policies and still-present relics like the “ladies menu” — identical to the men’s, sans prices. Attempts to address sexism, not to mention bizarre projections of gender onto food, have produced some cringeworthy results. Steakhouse chain STK, hoping to sell a fresh, “female-friendly” image, saw backlash in the early 2000s after rolling out a series of creepy and overtly sexual ads.

Last fall, Hotel Zena debuted in downtown Washington D.C. with a purported focus women’s empowerment — a theme manifested in a huge portrait of late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made with 20,000 hand-painted tampons. Observers were also quick to point out that the opening chef at Hotel Zena’s bar and restaurant inside was a man.

Sushi Boutique won’t take such a ham-handed approach. Instead, Dominguez and his team will try to cultivate a following of women with its complex, “feminine” cocktail menu, highlighting drinks like the Amaterasu (black truffle Toki whisky, mushroom tamari demerara), named for the Japanese sun goddess, and Inari, or fox spirit (haku vodka, melon, ginger-sansho cordial, vanilla-coconut sparkling sake).

The lessons of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have touched every corner of the industry, and Dominguez is eager to have some fun. “COVID forced us to reevaluate everything, and peole just want to feel comfortable at the end of the day,” he says. “Food can be pretentious but sometimes you want to have a good time and be a little bougie in the process.”

Sushi Boutique, 1244 N. Dearborn Parkway, Scheduled to open Saturday, October 2.

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