Tonight was opening night at Gene Kato's much anticipated Sumi Robata Bar; with a 5:15pm reservation made via Open Table I ended up being the first customer. As my wife was on a business trip I was dining solo; with all the buzz with Mani Te'o I dubbed this my night out with my fake girlfriend. Fortunately I was not trying to impress a date as Sumi did not live up to the pre-opening buzz; while there is potential there were quite a few gaffes; the food was good, but portions small and not good enough to make up for a lack of energy and the missteps.
Sumi occupies a long but narrow space in River North surrounded by hodgepodge of restaurants (within a stone's throw are such various venues as Ed Debevic's, Al's Beef, GT Fish & Oyster, Gino's East - even a Hooters). The front half is bar seating gazing into the kitchen; the seats near the robata grills have plexiglass; the back half occupies the dining room with table seating (there will be al fresco seating available during the warmer months). Although I was first to arrive I was placed at an undesirable seat in the corner of the bar with the plexiglass limiting my view of the kitchen. While the space was aesthetically pleasing, the stool was not the most comfortable and the counter space was cramped (I even bumped my head against the plexiglass while moving my stool forward).
The first service gaffe occurred early on; a woman introduced herself as my server and asked for my water preference (note that waters other than tap incur a surcharge) a few minutes later a second woman ambled over and said she would be my server (this same event played out half hour later when a party of two was seated next to me). Service would best be described as attentive, but a bit nervous and not as warm as would be desired. Busboys also seemed to almost be hovering, ready to snag your plate away the moment you were finished as if it was gold.
It was almost as if Sumi was pretending they had been established for months rather than being excited that they were new; there was not even a single acknowledgement that they were a new venue. This was in sharp contrast to my experience at Goosefoot; my wife and I had the privilege of being the first customers at Goosefoot and the staff, Chef Nugent and his wife (who works as the general manager) were all so excited when we walked in the door. Even though Chef Kato was just a few feet away from me for most of the hour and fifteen minutes I was present tonight, he never uttered a word to me or even made eye contact (maybe he was surprised by my fake girlfriend).
The menu at Sumi consists of cold and hot appetizers, items for the robata grill (divided into vegetables, fish and meats) and desserts; drink wise there are a few cocktails and beers, several wines and sakes, teas, French Press coffee, waters and soda. Be advised that the cocktails are rather sweet, so might not pair best with the food - either have them after dinner or consume them quickly before the food arrives. The meats have a nice mixture of nose-to-tail options (i.e. chicken gizzard and beef tongue) as well as several more vanilla choices (i.e. chicken breast or steak). Each meat has either it's own seasoning or marinade, the robata grill imparts it's own flavor and then you have some seasoning tableside if you desire some extra heat. What was odd was as the server reviewed the menu she commented about items they were "out" of; I am not sure how a venue on opening night can be "out" of anything when I am the first customer (unless they had a really fun staff meal earlier). I guess this was part of their act of trying to portray themselves as an established business rather than taking pride in being brand new and simply stating they do not have the full menu available yet. When I asked if there were any dishes that were recommended my question was dodged.
While the menu items are inexpensive, they are small plate style so you have to order several to fill up; I was advised to order one or two appetizers and five robata items. I ended up adding a sixth item and ordered dessert yet still left a bit hungry. A problem is the robata items are simply served as the protein or vegetable on their own; no accompaniments, no bread service, no rice - nothing to really fill you up (each robata item is a few bites). Also what was really awkward was the robata items are each served on their own plate; the timing was off in that all five of my robata items were served within minutes as well as one of my two appetizers came in the middle - so I had a stack of six plates surrounding a somewhat cramped seating area. I think they need to combine two to three items onto one plate (and preferably add some rice or noodles to make the food more filling) - I am not sure about the tables in the dining room but at the bar area it was just cumbersome and weird to have so many plates at a tiny place setting. Also some of the food became cold as I consumed other dishes so at most three items should be served before additional items are delivered.
Despite the negatives there is some potential; the space is nice and the concept is good (there are not many places like this in Chicago). The quality of the food was above average; everything was cooked well and was rather tasty with the egg appetizer (it was in a nice, sweet broth with roe and mushrooms; wasabi grated atop tableside) and the Japanese version of a beef slider was so delicious I ordered a second (the beef was shaped like a sausage and served in an open steamed bun with miso melted over the top). While I did not order the shrimp, it looked great - a very large head on shrimp served hot off the grill (the people next to me ordered this). The deconstructed crustless apple pie dessert tasted good (especially the caramel) but this too had an awkward presentation (a bowl contains some crumble and sour cream ice cream; next to it is a wrapper with ginger poached Fuji apple slices and caramel, but the caramel sticks to the wrapper as you try to dump it onto the crumble and then the warm apples quickly melt the ice cream). A big issue is they definitely need to make the meal more filling (i.e. add bread service and/or rice or noodles served with the robata items); I paid nearly $100 for my food, one cocktail, one glass of sake, tax and tip and left a bit hungry. Service also needs to be ironed out (understandable for a new venue - but admit you are a new venue and be proud of that and people will be more forgiving). I also think that management needs to be more visible; other than the hostess and waitstaff nobody came over to check on me or inquire about my experience. The restaurant scene in Chicago is so competitive (and River North has become a hotbed for restaurants) that Sumi needs to elevate their game to be a success. I am pulling for them to do well, but based on my experience tonight am not in a hurry to return.
View From Bar Seating
Tuna Appetizer with Avocado and Fried Shallot Rings
View of my Food Cooking on the Robata Grill from my Seat
Chef Kato Tending to the Robata Grill
Crustless Apple Pie (After I Assembled it)
Sumi Robata Bar
702 North Wells (River North Neighborhood)
Chicago, IL 60654
Reservations Available on Open Table
Website Pending, Facebook Page Active