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Two stars for Sumi Robata Bar

Those who know chef Gene Kato from his years as executive chef (one of two) at Japonais should be advised that while the quality of his cooking hasn't changed at Sumi Robata Bar, the restaurant he and his wife opened in January, the dining experience most definitely has.

Japonais was and is a very popular hot spot, but its food competes for attention with the hot nightclub atmosphere, the dress-to-impress crowd and music you feel with your chest. At Sumi, the music is barely noticeable, decor is authentically spare and "capacity crowd" means about 35 guests, maybe a dozen or so more if weather permits use of the tree-lined, zen garden space outside.

"Rather than me doing my interpretation of robata, I want to showcase robata-yaki in its most authentic form," Kato says. "Obviously this varies with product availability; we're not in Japan, and most of my customers aren't Japanese. Which means focusing on the basics; provide the best product possible, and execute it in the best possible form."

This involves not doing some things. Every other restaurant I know of that features a robata grill also offers a full sushi menu. Not so with Sumi, whose menu includes no sushi and just three sashimi items (there's more raw fish available at Hub 51). No, the restaurant's full focus is on the robata grill, on which Kato is a virtual virtuoso.

Grab one of the dozen or so seats that line the robata bar; the beautiful bar stools are somewhat uncomfortable, even with cushions, but it's worth a little discomfort to watch Kato at work, deftly moving food around the robata grill's varying heat zones. Intense heat, for instance, provides a craggy char to a pair of scallops, their sweet richness heightened by drizzled ohba butter, which settled into the fissures on top. Octopus pieces get an appreciably aggressive char; romaine leaves a very gentle one. Lamb chops and chicken thighs show off precision cooking and pristine flavors.

But the beef tongue is a revelation. Most kitchens braise this cut, but Kato (who begins by using American wagyu-style beef) puts raw tongue on the robata and gently coaxes it to medium-rare perfection. Remarkably tender yet full-flavored, this tongue could pass for steak easily. Try it.

Also try the beef tsukune slider, Kato's lone whimsical indulgence. Tsukune is minced meat, which Kato robata-grills and wraps, still skewered, in a bao bun. Topped with a smear of miso mustard, the dish looks a lot like state-fair food. "I call it the closest thing the Japanese have to a hot dog," Kato says.

If the chicken tail is available, order it, and then tell me how you liked it; I'm 0 for 3 in my attempts to order it. The trouble, Kato says, is that he gets only two pieces from a tail, needs seven pieces to make a skewer, and Kato doesn't go through that many chickens. "It's one of my favorite parts," Kato says, and somehow I wonder if that also has something to do with the scarcity.

Similarly, chicken heart and chicken gizzard, both on the menu, carry "when available" status; I actually saw one couple leave the restaurant without ordering a thing, after learning that gizzards and hearts were unavailable that night.

Away from the grill, sashimi slices of madai (sea bream) dressed with ponzu and ginger pack a surprising amount of flavor, and chilled tea-smoked duck breast is impressive as well. Seared salmon with salmon roe and plump king crab croquettes are frequent specials worth your attention. Savory mochi, presented with a sheet of nori (you roll your own), is an acquired taste I have yet to acquire.

There are only two desserts, but they're fun. Chocolate-filled doughnuts, served alongside green-tea semifreddo, are reminiscent of the "coffee and doughnuts" dessert I had at Japonais 10 years ago. Soy milk panna cotta topped with tofu skin, dabs of yuzu curd and candied soybeans is a yummy, light treat.

Kato's pursuit of purity creates the occasional oddity. There is a downstairs bar called Charcoal, an intimate 11-seat space that specializes in one-on-one bartender-customer interaction — so much so that Charcoal's cocktails are available only to downstairs customers. There are plenty of wine and sake options upstairs, along with four small-batch bottled cocktails (I'm fond of the soft, peppery-finish Dragon's Milk and the citrusy Hana). It's a moot point for now — Charcoal's bartender just quit, and a replacement is not yet on board — but Kato might ponder ways to expand the dining room's cocktail options.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.

Sumi Robata Bar

702 N. Wells St.; 312-988-7864; sumirobatabar.com

Tribune rating: Two stars
Open:
Dinner Monday-Saturday, lunch Monday-Friday
Prices:
Dishes $3-$16
Credit cards:
A, DS, M, V
Reservations:
Strongly recommended
Noise:
Conversation-friendly
Other:
Wheelchair accessible

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

 pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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