Walk into Kitsune, the new Lincoln Square restaurant from Iliana Regan, and odds are the first word that would come to mind is “adorable.” And while it definitely is—from the bobblehead-like figurines lining the shelves near the tiny open kitchen and the rabbit-shaped ceramic chopstick holders to the bright orange chairs that seem to mold to the small of your back just so—there’s more going on at this 24-seat spot than cute eye candy.
Like Regan’s Elizabeth and the sorely missed Bunny, The Micro Bakery, Kitsune (named after a mythological Japanese spirit fox, no less) isn’t easy to pigeonhole. For those in need of a summary, homestyle Japanese with a focus on Midwestern ingredients should suffice. That means 16 or so small and large plates meant to be shared.
Fermenting is a big deal here, and that includes the delicious housemade wild rice and koji porridge bread. Spread some of the cheese-like cultured butter on the thick chewy slices of brown bread to up the umami factor. Gomae, that earthy cold spinach dish, gets a rich and comforting upgrade with cubes of tofu thrown in along with bonito flakes.
Cuteness can sometimes transfer to the plates at Kitsune. “This looks like it came straight out of The Little Mermaid,” said my dining companion when the seared scallops arrived dusted with tiny purple flowers and crispy puffed rice all nestled in a white seashell. I agreed—or at least I think I did. I was busy stuffing the wonderfully tender bivalves in my mouth.
Some negotiations were needed when the bowl of ramen arrived. Our bonhomie was helped along by the cocktails that preceded it, including the gin- and sake-focused Tartful and Manhattan, which cleverly swaps in tawny port for vermouth. “It’s like a Manhattan with training wheels,” said the server. Tricky as it was to split, that evening’s vegan ramen special—Kitsune also features a more traditional tonkotsu ramen with pork belly—was worth it with its deeply flavored broth, variety of barely cooked mushrooms and noodles made from nettles.
The best bang-for-your-buck dish goes to the okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza, as it’s sometimes called. Sized somewhere between a CD and a Frisbee, the custard-like pancake with bits of perky pickled ginger and squiggles of Japanese Kewpie mayo is addictive in a way few egg-based dishes are. It also has a built-in entertainment aspect courtesy of the pile of bonito flakes doing that dance they tend to do when the air hits. Which, come to think of it, is kind of adorable.
4229 N. Lincoln Ave.
Dinner Tue.-Sun., brunch Sun.
Small Share, $4-$19;Big Share, $16-$60; Sweets, $3-$7