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posted: 10/2/2013 6:00 AM

Libertyville's Shakou serves up Japanese fare with an urban vibe

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  • Kaze Sashimi comes artfully arranged at Shakou Japanese restaurant in Libertyville.

       Kaze Sashimi comes artfully arranged at Shakou Japanese restaurant in Libertyville.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Sunny Hill roll consists of lightly breaded soft shell crab, cucumber, avocado and sea salt, topped with salmon and salmon roe at Shakou.

       The Sunny Hill roll consists of lightly breaded soft shell crab, cucumber, avocado and sea salt, topped with salmon and salmon roe at Shakou.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Braised short ribs come with a variety of vegetables at Shakou Japanese restaurant in Libertyville.

       Braised short ribs come with a variety of vegetables at Shakou Japanese restaurant in Libertyville.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Traditional and signature sushi is made to order at Shakou in Libertyville.

       Traditional and signature sushi is made to order at Shakou in Libertyville.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Twenty-foot ceilings add to the dramatic feel of the dining room at Shakou.

       Twenty-foot ceilings add to the dramatic feel of the dining room at Shakou.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The bar at Shakou is a nice place to enjoy artisan cocktails.

       The bar at Shakou is a nice place to enjoy artisan cocktails.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Shakou holds a prominent place in downtown Libertyville's restaurant row.

       Shakou holds a prominent place in downtown Libertyville's restaurant row.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup
Daily Herald Correspondent

Lovers of Japanese cuisine, nightclubs and cool party scenes are the target audience for Shakou, the latest venue to hit Libertyville's downtown restaurant row. Fittingly, "shakou" roughly translates to "social life."

Folks who head to the restaurant at 625 N. Milwaukee Ave. primarily for the food aren't likely to be disappointed, while twenty-something clubgoers wearing the latest fashions will be happy they don't have to go all the way to Chicago to find a hot nightclub. Shakou serves both desires and even provides a late-night lounge on the second level.

Both audiences will be wowed by the decor. Twenty-foot-high ceilings show off a dramatically designed contemporary space, complete with ceiling-to-floor window drapes. A brilliant and unexpected design element is a collection of Old World-style crystal chandeliers that provide a surprising counterpoint to the rest of the space's modern look. Co-owner Alex Dupor is credited with originating the design.

Once seated, with reservations highly recommended on weekend nights, cocktails seemed in order, especially the specialty ones conceived by mixologist and co-owner Adam Garvanian, who insists on fresh-squeezed fruit juices, fresh herbs and hand-muddling. I enjoyed the snow cosmo, made with sherry noir-infused vodka and white cranberry juice.

Many diners make meals from a series of small plates, which include menu categories of hot appetizer, cold appetizers, nigiri, sashimi, maki and signature maki. Those who prefer ordering in the more traditional American-style have choices of a la carte soups, salads and hot entrees listed under steak, chicken, seafood and noodles.

We began with easily shareable maki as appetizers, with my favorite being the spicy tuna with sesame oil, seven-spice powder and scallion. The tuna, which I later learned was either big eye or yellowtail, was firm and impeccably fresh.

We also tried the California roll, containing the usual bits of avocado, cucumber and surimi, imitation crab actually made from pollock. Since almost all Japanese-American sushi restaurants have this roll on their menus, it's a way to draw a comparison to other sushi restaurants. This one compared favorably and was prepared with a somewhat lighter and subtler touch than others I've tried in the metro area.

A more interesting signature maki called Sunny Hill consisted of lightly breaded soft shell crab, cucumber, avocado and sea salt, topped with salmon and salmon roe. The circular presentation and the glistening roe conjured up an impression of a hill and rays of sunshine -- hence the name Sunny Hill.

I then moved on to a hot appetizer, selecting soft shell crab, although I wondered about its origin, since I knew that domestic soft shell was no longer in season. Chef Sang Choi later told me he sources this variety from Indonesia or other countries.

The spiky claws of the flash-fried, lightly battered whole crab, framed in a flash-fried won ton wrapper, created a sunburst design. Not only did the dish have a spectacular presentation, but it tasted delicious; crunchy and not mushy, accented with a lemon soy sauce.

A composed seaweed salad over cucumber was on par with other seaweed salads from other regional Japanese restaurants -- nothing special.

For a hot entree to share, I ordered the classic Korean beef dish bulgogi. The thin strips of grilled sirloin steak had been marinated in a ginger soy sauce and came in a bowl with white rice and sauteed vegetables, mostly squashes, carrot and onion. While the steak flavor was very good, the vegetables were somewhat overcooked.

Dessert definitely was in order after experiencing mostly tangy and salty flavors throughout our repast. We narrowed the four choices of mochi (sweet rice balls, which are not made in-house), to mango and red bean, both of which easily met our expectations and were portioned just right for four of us to share.

Service could have been more attentive, but the staff was quite busy on this particular Saturday night.

The space is about to get even busier. Shokou plans to introduce Sunday brunch in November and schedule sushi-making and sake appreciation classes.

Restaurant review are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.

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