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TODAY

Sunday, December 15

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Airbags

Anyone who had ever eaten a meal prepared by Sushi Mike at Andersonville's Hama Matsu knew it was inevitable that he would open his own restaurant one day. Last year the reputation of this sushi chef and his celebrated, larger-than-life maki spread far and wide through the city; the more people talked, the harder it became to get a seat at his sushi bar.

And so, when Mike quit Hama Matsu and announced in early December the opening of his new place, Tanoshii, located about 10 blocks north, few -- if any -- of his regulars were surprised.

Even though I was itching to go as soon as I heard news of the opening, I restrained myself from visiting Tanoshii until last week, just to give Sushi Mike a month or so to settle into his new digs. Arriving at the restaurant early on a Monday evening, I was astounded at the physical similarity between Tanoshii and Hama Matsu, from the long wooden sushi bar running along the left side of the narrow room to the cloth-covered upturned tents lining the ceiling to the simple Asian accents on the small tables. Mike certainly borrowed some of his decorating ideas from his former employer.

But décor is not the only thing Tanoshii and Hama Matsu have in common: Fortunately, Mike brought over his stellar sushi creations with such eclectic items as the Andersonville maki (shrimp, crab, cream cheese, cucumber and masago) and the Tanoshii maki (unagi, smoked salmon, shrimp, asparagus, oshinko, yamagobo, avocado, cucumber and kanpyo) rounding out the menu.

I ordered the red caterpillar maki ($12) -- crabmeat and cucumber rolled in thin avocado slices and topped with generous spoonfuls of fresh tuna mixed with spicy mayo -- and was relieved that the result was signature Sushi Mike: huge, fresh, and gorgeously presented. There are some sushi enthusiasts would prefer their fish plain without any other ingredients competing with the taste of the meat. To these people, I would say, "Order the sashimi combo," which is also extraordinarily fresh. Sometimes it's nice to mix up your dining routine, and Mike's masterpieces, exploding with creativity and complimenting flavors, are perfect for the job.

Unfortunately, the other thing carried over from Hama Matsu is imperfect timing, a frustrating kink in an otherwise smooth operation. The maki I ordered was delivered to the table a mere 10 minutes after we ordered, but it was a good 15 minutes after that before our soft shell crab appetizer showed up and another 10 before my guest's shrimp entrée made it to the table; I had to hold off eating my maki a long time until my guest (who doesn't eat raw fish) had food in front of him. Of course, this is a forgivable complaint given that the restaurant has only been open a few weeks, but the staff would do well to remedy this pacing problem if they want to attract repeat customers.

As for the cooked food at Tanoshii, I would have to say I was pleased with our meal. Our appetizer of soft shell crab ($6) was fresh, tasty, and deep-fried in a light batter that was not too greasy. This was served with a side of soy-based sour dipping sauce.

My guest's shrimp entrée ($16) was also good, if a bit skimpy for the price. Small skewered shrimp were marinated in a sweet teriyaki sauce and grilled, and served alongside grilled carrots, zucchini, onion and broccoli. A side of fantastic lightly-battered shrimp tempura was a great compliment to this dish. This is a great light meal for those who made New Year's resolutions pertaining to the waistline.

Sadly, the one thing missing from Tanoshii on our visit was Sushi Mike, and I mean that less in a literal sense -- Mike was working behind the sushi bar the whole time -- and more in a figurative sense. It seems the stress of opening a restaurant has understandably taken a toll on him and instead of the joking, gregarious chef I was used to at Hama Matsu, I found him on this visit (probably just an off night) to be silent, hard-working, and almost sullen. Even the efforts of the couple next to us to engage him in conversation were futile. His sushi was still amazing, but his famous humor and pleasantries failed to make an appearance.

One can only hope that if Mike's restaurant becomes a success -- and I suspect it will be -- his personality will be as attractive as the cuisine.

Tanoshii is located at 5547 N. Clark Street. Visit them online at www.tanoshiichicago.com.

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About the Author(s)

Kim Conte loves to write and eat, and dreams that one day someone will pay her a lot to do both.

If you feel the need to get in touch with her directly, do so at .

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