Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sit Down Sushi: Bright Spot on East 53rd Street

posted by chicago pop

53rd Street west of about Kenwood on a wintry Sunday evening is a desolate, almost spooky place. So when the four of us found ourselves at a table near the window of The Sit Down Cafe and Sushi Bar at around 7PM, watching the restaurant slowly fill to about two-thirds capacity, I experienced a "wow" moment.

The restaurant begins with an enormous geographical advantage: it's not on 55th Street, and therefore runs no risk of guilt-by-association with any of the bottom-feeder operations between Lake Park and Hyde Park Boulevards.

But it's a bit off the beaten path for some; Third World Cafe across the street, a minor hub of caffeinated intellectual activity during waking hours, is usually by then dark and in hibernation.

A few blocks east is a bleak gas station and a vacant lot Christmas tree vendor who happened to have sold a tree to Obama that afternoon, according to HuffPo Chicago and a stylist at Japanese Spa Zen; and directly across from Sit Down is the stretch of unexplainable blackness that is Nichols Park's truly uninviting 53rd Street facade.

So if this place can pull people in on a Sunday night in mid-December, they may just be able to make the long haul. We'll be back to help them out.

The four of us were roundly satisfied with our meals, which sampled only the Japanese side of the eclectic menu. Not mind-blowing as at some of the higher-end spots on the North Side, but better than many run-of-the-mill sushi places on Clark Street in Lakeview. Overall, our experience of The Sit down was of decent and solid food, in a welcoming and pleasant decor that is still novel for most Hyde Park eateries.

Dining Partner #1 summed it up nicely: "They've got the block and tackle down." The service was friendly, competent, and attentive, the sushi chefs greeted us as soon as we walked in the door, and we were checked on twice by someone who must have been owner Salvatore Pappalito.

The sushi, according to Dining Parnter #2, a veteran of some time in Japan, was "fresh, tasty, well-prepared," and he recommends the seared Tuna Tataki.

Speaking on behalf of Dining Partner #4, myself, I began with a bowl of miso soup, one of the primary comfort foods of all humanity, and it hit the spot. I followed this with a few maki, specifically the wonderfully named Smoky Bear, and an ebi tempura roll. Both were quite savory, with the Smoky Bear coming as close as a roll can to fish candy. Depending on the restaurant, an extravagant roll like this can drown out sour or unfresh fish, with the cream cheese filling and sweet unagi sauce hiding any untoward fishiness.

But the yellow tail and mackerel sushi held their own beside the rolls, assuring us that there was no sushi sleight of hand going on behind the counter. A bowl of complimentary pickled octopus was a nice touch.

I admit that when I first learned that The Sit Down would be serving sushi together with pizza and hummus, I was a bit fearful that this might be a sort of culinary hedge-fund -- and we all know how those are doing these days. They tend to go under the banner of "American Restaurant," or "European Dining," serving everything from gyros and Persian kabobs to Italian pizza, spaghetti, and American steaks while being good at cooking none of them.

None of us strayed from the waters of Japan this time, but word of mouth so far supports Dining Parnter #3's claim that the Italian-style, thin crust pizza is "super thin and super delicious!"

We'll have more on that and the sandwiches in Part 2.


The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi Bar
1312 E. 53rd Street Chicago

Menu for Two:

Miso Soup
Steamed White Rice
Smoky Bear Roll
Ebi Tempura Roll

Green Tea
Mackeral Sushi
Spicy Crab Roll
Negihama Roll


Elizabeth Fama said...

This post and the weather together make me need a bowl of miso.

Richard Gill said...

Sounds great, and so close to Cedars, one of my favorite local eateries. I'll be interested to try Sit Down's thin crust pizza. Does Sit Down allow BYOB?

edj said...

The web site has a big BYOB listed on the front page.

Wasn't this place supported by the owners of Hyde Park Produce?

chicago pop said...

I believe the current owner of Sit Down is a relation of the family that owns HP Produce. Don't know what the extent of financial support was.

On that note, it was interesting sitting in the restaurant and remembering the space when it was a grocery store -- and trying to figure out whether we were the mango table or the dry goods rack.

It seems much bigger than it ever did when they were produce vendors.

Ben said...

My wife and I have made several visits to the Sit Down and have found it enjoyable each and every time. I too was concerned about the extent of the menu, fearing another Rajun Cajun, but I think they are able to do each thing quite well, and I can not complain about that in HP. I believe you can also purchase sushi from the Sit Down at the deli counter in HPP, but I am not sure of the specifics just yet. I am thrilled to have another place in the neighborhood where I actually enjoy to eat. My only complaint/criticism concerns the layout. The space: yes it does seem so much larger than the old HPP, but it is poorly designed. They could easily increase the number of seats available in the restaurant with some minor changes. Also, the failure to replace the double doors with a revolving door is a big mistake during the winter months for a restaurant. Still, this isn't enough to discourage me from going back for more. I would also like to add that it is very inexpensive, but doesn't taste that way.

chicago pop said...

Yeah, we sat close enough to the door to get a cold blast every 15 minutes or so -- some kind of vestibule or revolving door is a good idea.

Layout: Dining Companion #3 also observed that they could fit a lot more tables in the space they have and make it seem less open and drafty.

Thoughts we hope they'll keep in mind to make future visits more enjoyable!

Richard Gill said...

"It seems much bigger than it ever did when they were produce vendors."

That's because the old produce store was all product and bins, with half-inch-wide aisles. It was sort of like shopping in a submarine, but that was part of the place's "unique" character. There's that word "unique" again; did Jack Spicer try to preserve that place too?

Fleurie said...

Another sushi place opened on 53rd street about 2 months ago:


Richard Gill said...

Dueling workaday restaurant strips?

57th St, Harper to Kimbark
55th St, Hyde Park Blvd to railroad bridge
53rd St. Lake Park to Woodlawn

Matthew said...

We had the pizza which I highly recommend and I second the comment on the Miso soup which was just right. We had the feeling that these are folks new to the restaurant business. The comments about the space reflect that, but more importantly, we found the 'block and tackle' less together than Chicago Pop's experience. Friday night at 5pm was not terribly busy, but we had to request utensils, waited a bit too long for the check, and they did little to up-sell (no suggestions, no desert, did not point out their pricey soft-drinks).

All of that said, this is a very welcome addition to 53rd and the pizza was good enough to make it regular addition to our dining.

nate said...

If sushi's your thing, please check out Shinju Sushi - the space itself is quite small, but the sushi and sashimi go toe to toe with the best I've had in Chicago.

Another review in the cards? :)

Pixel Buffer said...

we've been to both places, and, according to my wife, who is Japanese (the owner of Japanese Spa Zen (thanks for the mention!)), the rice, which is so important for sushi, is much better at the Sitdown.

Ken and Kim Cohen said...

We've gone once and definitely enjoyed the restaurant. The spider roll was very good, although not the best incarnation I've had (which was 997 miles away). We enjoyed the pan seared albacore appetizer. The soups were surprisingly good. Although the jambalaya was not particularly authentic, it was tasty. My wife had the bean soup and enjoyed it. The only mediocre aspect to dinner was the brownie dessert, although it wasn't too bad.

Our waitress was efficient and helpful. Overall, we'd definitely return, although we remain cautious about attempting traditional sushi items in Hyde Park. It's quite a normal restaurant that one might find in other parts of Chicago and other major cities.

We'd like to try Shinju Sushi, but we've read some concerning reviews on Yelp.

On a separate note, does anyone know of any Chinatown restaurants that deliver to Hyde Park? The chinese food scene here is fairly awful.

Richard Gill said...

Very positive review. We tried The Sit Down for dinner Saturday, December 27, and it is now on our list of places to surely return to. Four of us shared two entree salads and two of their thin crust pizzas. All were delish. The pizza crust is so thin, its almost looks translucent. Crispy enough that a slice doesn't bend under its own weight. We were told the thinness is due to holding back on the yeast, an accidental discovery. Really fresh salads; I wonder if HP Produce supplies their veggies. We B'd our own B.