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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, July 22

Gapers Block

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Sushi Mike will change your life. Well, at least, he will change the way you eat raw fish.

Hama Matsu's gregarious chef is proud of his nickname and prouder still that he is the only sushi chef in the city (or, so he says, and I have yet to prove him wrong) preparing custom specials for each and every customer should they care to indulge his creativity. This is a man who becomes visibly annoyed should you dare order a tuna roll or, God forbid, a California roll. If it's on the menu, Sushi Mike doesn't want to make it; he wants to serve you something you never dreamed of trying before.

Sushi Mike claims the best seats in the house are ringside along Hama Matsu's sushi bar. From here, customers can watch him work his magic -- and magic is the only appropriate word to describe exactly what goes on behind the bar as Sushi Mike becomes lost in a flurry of ingredients. Plus, I have found that being this close and personal gives you ample opportunity to tell him which fish you do (and, more importantly, do not) enjoy eating.

If you tell Sushi Mike you like scallops, he might make you something similar to the specialty scallop maki he made for me recently. The roll's center was comprised of chopped scallops, orange, honey, Japanese soy sauce, red pepper, and a few other ingredients I unfortunately lost track of (and when I asked Sushi Mike what he used, he rapidly listed off the items without giving me time to process what he was saying -- perhaps he was worried I would divulge his secret recipe). The outside of the maki would have ended up covered in roe had I not stopped him just in time -- I'm not a big fan of the snail eggs -- and instead, he somehow fried the whole thing so that it was coated with a crunchy layer of tempura so thin you could see right through it. After cutting the roll into pieces, he topped each one off with scallions and tiny dollops of mayonnaise and red pepper glaze so spicy that my eyes were tearing.

If you tell him you like shrimp, he may set to work frying up some shrimp tempura for the filling of another wondrous maki before cutting up nearing half of a fresh avocado into the thinnest of slices with which to wrap the outside of the roll. A fiery, orange sauce (I suspect red pepper to be the primary culprit) drizzled over top is this dish's usual finish. And as Sushi Mike will be sure to tell you, if not once then five times, no soy sauce is needed for this dish.

But you can never know just what to expect from Sushi Mike. On one visit to Hama Matsu, I told him I liked tuna, expecting yet another spectacular maki to miraculously appear before me. This time, however, Sushi Mike had something else in mind. He disappeared into the back room and emerged lugging a massive 20-pound hunk of raw, fresh, deep maroon-colored tuna. "This just came in today," he informed me. "Isn't it beautiful?"

It was strangely beautiful and alarmingly grotesque all at the same time. Speechless, I watched him heave the hunk of fish on the counter and begin to cut it with a sharp knife into thick slices, all the while explaining which parts of the fish were the tastiest. He handed me a few sashimi-size chunks over the bar and grinned when I took a bite; Sushi Mike was determined to serve me a meal that I would remember for a long time, and wow did he ever succeed.

At first glance, Hama Matsu, which just opened in December, might appear an unlikely site for such ambitious sushi-making to occur. For one thing, the space is refreshingly casual; this tiny Andersonville storefront is sparsely decorated with standard Asian-inspired decor, and when business is slow, the staff sits around the bar, cheerfully bantering with the chef. And, although sushi seems to be Hama Matsu's specialty, it serves more than Japanese fare: Half of the menu options are Korean. I usually order an appetizer from this side of the menu to start -- perhaps a doughy pa-jun pancake brimming with calamari or jop chae noodle dish with beef and veggies doused in soy sauce -- and then move on to the sushi. This way, I get the best of both worlds.

If Sushi Mike has had any negative affect on me it is only that I have become reluctant to visit other sushi spots in Chicago since I discovered Hama Matsu. My sushi standards have become quite high these days; no longer am I intrigued by trendy decor or a hip clientele. I have no tolerance for expensive price tags and pretentious staff, and I become bored when I scan through the options on the menu and realize the most creative thing I could be eating is a rainbow roll. Now, thanks to Sushi Mike, I value creativity, spontaneity and hospitality over all else.

And if that isn't life-changing then I don't know what is.

Hama Matsu is located at 5143 N. Clark. It is BYOB.

Editor's Note: Sushi Mike now has his own restaurant, Tanoshii, at 5547 N. Clark Street. Read a review of that restaurant here.

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Cinnamon / March 22, 2004 12:47 PM

I'm willing to try anything sushi-wise, and any restaraunt. Uni and Natto are the only things I've tried that I just can't stomach. I've also become slightly bored by sushi options lately and thank you for letting me know that this otherwise inauspicious restaraunt has such a delightful chef. Thanks, I just might go there tonight.

Naz / March 22, 2004 1:14 PM

Damnit man, I need to go here now too! Those rolls sound so good. How about we switch Ann Sather's...

miss ellen / March 22, 2004 1:55 PM

now you're talking, Naz!! ;)

i've been craving sushi & this place sounds wonderful. wonderfully anti-hip - just the way i like it!

Kim / March 22, 2004 2:44 PM

I'm glad you guys are as excited about this as I am! It is really a great place. Just to be clear, if you go and you can't get a seat at the sushi bar then just ask the server to have the chef make you something not on the menu -- sometimes if you're at a table and it's crowded, they might lose track of you. Just remind them! : )

Cinnamon / March 23, 2004 9:56 AM

I went last night for dinner and fell in love with the place. Sushi Mike was kissing babies, greeting everyone who came in the door, and rolling an impressive amount of sushi. I had two rolls and was so stuffed that my tummy was still aching when I fell asleep. It was too much food, but I couldn't let it go to waste. He gave me the first roll, I popped a piece in my mouth, and he watched me chew with a questionning gaze. When I smiled and nodded he smiled even bigger. I'm so glad this is close to my house. Thank you, Kim.

Ben / March 23, 2004 10:48 PM

I must go. I have an intra-Asian curiosity whether Mike/proprietors are in fact Korean. (No knock - in fact, it's the not-so-secret of Chicagoland sushi. Another: many talented slingers are Chicano [e.g. Shiroi Hana], and why not.)

Cinnamon, I feel you on the uni (sea urchin roe). It's definitely a yum/yuck, no in-between, like Brussels sprouts. I say yuck, but still I think everyone should at least try it once.

Cinnamon / March 24, 2004 3:01 PM

I'm glad I tried it, Ben. I think everyone should. It looks so beautiful but the texture of lukewarm mucous just threw my gag reflex into a tizzy. I think everyone should also try natto, but good luck finding it.

Alex / March 26, 2004 12:43 PM

Damn! I've been dying for sushi for months -- but pregnant woman can't eat it. June can't come soon enough, and when it does Hama Matsu WATCH OUT!

Cherfer / July 4, 2004 6:13 PM

I've been to Hama Matsu twice while on vacation in Chicago. I'm moving there on August 1st and will be right around the corner. The sushi is absolutely excellent and Sushi Mike is the best.


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