When you first sit down at Gaijin, do one thing: Peek into the kitchen. It won’t be hard because it’s a marquee part of the restaurant, visible from most tables, and it’s where action stirs around a 12-foot-long custom grill. There, chef Paul Virant (Vie, Vistro) and his team flip okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake filled with fresh ingredients.
“I think of the restaurant as a love letter to my wife,” says Virant of his much anticipated spot, which just opened in the West Loop. It hails his return to the city after closing Perennial Virant, the Lincoln Park farm-to-table Boka group restaurant, in 2016.
A Japanese-inspired concept may seem incongruous for a chef best known for using local ingredients and pickling techniques. But, in actuality, the concept couldn’t be closer to his heart.
Virant’s wife, Jennifer, who studied Japanese in college, fell in love with okonomiyaki. Once Virant figured out the technique it became “something his kids grew up on.” The thought of opening a spot focused on the Japanese delight had always lived in the back of his mind, and a quick trip to Japan in 2016 sealed the deal. To get even more immersed, in 2018 Virant returned to Japan with his whole family for a few weeks to dive into the culture. His wife was ultimately the one to name the 60-seat restaurant Gaijin, meaning “outsider.”
Okonomiyaki is typically filled with cabbage, scallions, and bacon, and topped with sweet Japanese barbecue sauce, creamy Kewpie mayo, bonito flakes, dried seaweed, and a variety of proteins.
Virant may be an outsider, but his menu is full of spot-on variations of the specialty, like the Osaka-style topped with octopus with fermented cherry bomb peppers and honey gastrique ($15); and the more layered version from Hiroshima with yakisoba, bacon, and egg ($15). Complementing the dish are options like housemade kimchi ($5) and a rotating Japanese pickle plate pancakes. Plus, there are unique shared plates like arctic char with hot mustard, radishes, and pea shoots ($12).
“The restaurant pays respect to the culture. … We’re keeping things as authentic as we can in flavor and experience,” says Virant. Each table has a flat-iron Teppan grill built in to keep the okonomiyaki hot. For an even more engaging experience, sit at the Shou Sugi Ban charred-wood chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen.
A Suntory highball machine straight from Japan mixes variations of the perfect house cocktail, including a carbonated Gaijin Toki Highball ($9) with Japanese whisky and lemon oil. On the nonalcoholic front, Rare Tea Cellars brings in traditional Japanese teas with some fun twists.
Save room for fun takes on kakigori, a Japanese frozen ice treat made with a snow cap of sweet condensed milk, shaved ice, toppings, and housemade ice cream. Unique flavors like sesame yuzu with strawberry compote and yuzu syrup top black sesame ice cream with honey sesame brittle ($13). Mochi donuts are just as they sound: crispy on the outside, and chewy and fluffy inside. Kudos are due to pastry chef Angelyne Canicosa, who dreamed up flavors like matcha-citrus and pandan-coconut ($4).
950 W. Lake; 312-265-1348; gaijinchicago.com
Photos by Regan Baroni