Stop the presses. For once, the question of "where should we eat?" didn't throw me into a tizzy. I knew exactly what I needed for a much-looked-forward-to dinner with Genevieve, a close college friend I hadn't seen in an embarrassing number of years.
One, it had to be BYOB (in true Zinny fashion, naturally). Two, It should be seafood, or, better yet, sushi (she doesn't do chicken and beef). Last, I needed a place on the North Side, to make her Purple-to-Red L ride shorter. That made Jai Yen, 3736 N. Broadway Ave., a new and new-to-me Japanese spot in Boystown, the obvious choice. Almost.
I pictured something perfectly casual, which generally fits the bill. But inexpensive spots usually don't have the linger-all-night vibe I was hoping for, and traditional sushi restaurants can be more unassuming than enveloping.
But no use in crying over milk before it even spills, right? We made plans to meet at 5:30, giving us plenty of time to visit. Because my plate of nigiri rarely sits full for longer than 15 minutes, I decided a good bottle of wine to sip over was important. I headed to Binny's in River North with a sauvignon blanc alternative in mind. After my Sushiwine flop and a quick breeze through an entertaining article about why s.b. is overrated, I scanned for less expensive bottles of chenin blanc. The selection wasn't jaw-dropping, but I happily settled on a 2004 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viogner.
I arrived to an empty restaurant, grabbed a table and took a glance around. I liked what I saw. The space is divided into an open series of rooms, making our window-side table a relatively private one. At first look, the decor is as you'd expect: green tea walls, simple wooden tables, a small sushi bar. But then the decorative touches filter in: mosaic trim on the bathroom doors, two in-wall aquariums, nooks that house vases and teapots.
The word that seemed to underwrite everything was "care," and the rest of the evening did little to detract from that sweeping sentiment. Our bottle was opened immediately and placed in a leather-wrapped ice bucket (here! here!). We clinked our glasses, let the waitress know we were in no rush, and read in the menu as we chattered.
It's a long read. Fusion is the emphasis, so the sushi was joined by plenty of Thai and Chinese dishes. But rather than dump on endless lists of hastily chosen dishes, careful attention was apparent here, too. The normally rote fried rice came three ways: traditional, basil (with fresh leaves) and Hawaiian, with pineapple, cashews and raisins. The Pad Thai Jai Yen is served over an omelet sheet, and the appetizers stray from the norm with the deep-fried spicy tuna maki (yep, battered and fried, with cream cheese and avocado in the mix).
We were impressed, and decided to start with the lightly fried shrimp shumai. It was a tasty choice (and seemed safer than the marinated jellyfish), as was the wine. It was so light I was almost tempted to gulp, but settled on restraint.
The maki menu is a healthy one, with at least 25 standards (most priced at $4.50) and another 20 chef's specials (pleasantly, only one stretched past $10.95). We ordered a simple shiitake maki; my perennial favorite, Mexican; and the Fire Dragon, spicy tuna topped with unagi and avocado.
Again, thoughtfulness: I've ordered Mexican maki, packed with cilantro, jalapeno and lime, plenty of times, but I've never seen the yellowtail draped over the roll. A nice touch. Though I had planned to load up on all the maki I could stuff myself with, our small order proved to be enough, and more than cheap enough, at $28.
Best of all? It was a hair past 9 p.m., meaning we had sat at that no-longer-sunny table for almost four hours, with only the most pleasant and well-timed interruptions. Now that's a dinner.
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.