Celebrating the 55th Gathering of the Gourmet Evening

Edited by Roseann Mark

For those who love authentic Japanese food, a Gourmet Evening at Sakuma’s Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar is not to be missed. September 20, 2008 marked the restaurant’s 55th Gourmet Evening, and like the 54 that preceded it, it offered Chicagoland diners delectable dishes — classics as well as new creations with a contemporary twist — from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Nestled in a strip mall in suburban Streamwood, at the southeast junction of South Sutton Road (Rt. 59) and Schaumburg Road, Sakuma’s is surprisingly homey and unpretentious. It’s a perfect place to enjoy long, uninterrupted dinner conversation with friends on any given night, but on Gourmet Evenings the conversation may include not just friends but perfect strangers, food critics, and gastronomy fans as well.

When we arrived just after 6 p.m., after finding convenient free parking in front of the restaurant, we were ushered to our table, which was elegantly set with wine and sake glasses. Our waiter poured us green tea — rich in anti-oxidants that are beneficial for the heart — as we greeted another couple who had arrived earlier and opened our menus.

The Gourmet Evening menu at Sakuma’s is never announced beforehand, so even regular customers find surprises among the offerings. On the night of our visit, the menu included appetizers, a fusion plate, dobin-mushi (soup served in an earthenware teapot), a special dish of the month, an entrée, and dessert — all selected and offered at a fixed price to let diners sample an array of Japanese cuisine affordably. And this being a Gourmet Evening, all drinks, taxes, and gratuities were included in the price.

More guests arrived, and introductions and light conversation filled the room. (Helpfully, table tents at all the place settings served as name tags.) The clinking of a wine glass was our cue to turn toward Young Akira, Sakuma’s sous chef, who had come to the table to explain the courses on the menu one by one, including the wine list.

Our first course featured a colorful combination of white mushrooms in butter sauce, sautéed beef and asparagus, deep-fried shrimp, white cheese, and caviar. In Japanese cuisine, we learned the principle of five colors— white, red, yellow, green, and black — is followed to produce a well-balanced and nutrient-rich meal.

The Japanese also take great pride in the artful presentation of food, in creating a feast for the eyes. We saw Chef Sakuma’s mastery of distinctive presentation in our next course — the fusion plate. We savored the dish’s stimulating blend of beef tataki, crispy rice shrimp ball, tuna drizzled with olive oil, cooked shrimp, seared Norwegian fatty salmon, and tamago (egg).

To accompany each course, diners could choose to enjoy sake, draft beer, wine, or sake with cranberry or pineapple juice cocktails. One of the diners even came up with the wild idea of making a “saketini,” a combination of sake and a martini. The wait staff were quick to refill empty glasses. Such exemplary service and a food-friendly wine list were big bonuses: Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Petite Sirah were paired with the food thoughtfully, and the result was both delicious and intellectually satisfying. The Riesling, for example, offered a great balance of acidity and sweetness, reminiscent of biting into a ripe white peach.

Dobin-mushi, a traditional Japanese steamed soup served in an earthenware teapot, was our next course. Not only delicious, this light, low-calorie, low-fat soup is made with healthful ingredients including age-defying ginkgo and soy (primarily tofu). It was followed by Chef Sakuma’s special dish of the month: takoyaki-octopus puffs with beef sukiyaki and crispy shumai.

Next came the entrée: a six-piece assortment of fusion-style sashimi sushi. This dish, it was noted, is low in saturated fat and rich in heart-friendly, depression-reducing omega-3 fatty acids. It also features a condiment — wasabi — that can cause a burning sensation in your nose. As we told our fellow diners, the sensation goes away almost instantly when you rub your finger on the bridge of your nose. (We had learned the tip from a Korean TV show a few years ago.)

Finally, for dessert we enjoyed one of the off-beat sweet creations Sakuma is known for. Tonight it was strawberry-mochi ice cream cut in half and served with mint leaves and whipped cream. We savored every last bite.

It was clear that Chef Sakuma, a lifelong epicure, had pulled out all the stops to make this Gourmet Evening memorable for his guests. The frequent diners at our table — those for whom the Gourmet Evening on every third Saturday of the month is a ritual — told us that they’ve feasted with up to 80 other diners. (Sometimes the group even stays until midnight for the karaoke.)

Of the 55th Gourmet Evening we can say this: The meal was flavorful, the service charming, the wine and sake plentiful. Most memorable, however, were the graciousness of our hosts and the warm and affable company of our fellow diners. Before we parted, we all committed to come back the following month. As we rose from our chairs, we realized it was nearly 10 p.m. Everybody around us called it time well spent. We could not have agreed more.