I was late for my dinner reservation at Modai Sushi Lounge last week because I couldn't pick out the right outfit.
I'd been wearing frayed jeans, a thick gray sweater and beat-up cross-trainers all day. These were clothes I wouldn't think twice about if I were dining at Blueberry Hill, Seki, Miss Saigon, Chinese Noodle Café, Cicero's, Brandt's, Riddle's, Fitz's, Saleem's, Red Sea, Thai restaurants one-through-seventeen or any other eatery in the Loop.
But I prefer to err on the side of overdressed, and I know as intuitively as any other city gal the kind of sartorial ensemble that "sushi lounge" dictates: sleek black slacks, shape-conscious, slinky shirt (chest- and/or midriff-baring encouraged but optional), chunky-heeled black boots. Or something like that. You know, clothes to dance or flirt in -- never mind that I had no plans to do either.
Such attire complements what's become the standard sushi-lounge décor -- a well-tread aesthetic, even though sushi lounges haven't been around for all that long. Chances are a sushi lounge boasts most or all of the following: chilly concrete walls and floors; chrome tables, chairs and accents; a half-muted, half-neon lighting scheme; and a knot of funky, step-above-Ikea couches and coffee tables up front. Throw in a half-dozen chilled sakes, jumbo cans of Sapporo, your typical girly-martini menu, a two-bit wine list and a few overly inventive sushi rolls, and you have yourself a sushi lounge. Even if your food menu flops, the late-night tipsy-hipster crowd will likely keep your business afloat.
Three-month-old Modai tries very hard to be a sushi lounge. Its interior design (incongruous with its quaint brick exterior) adheres pretty strictly to the above rules, save a couple of nifty architectural quirks. The unisex bathrooms are down in the basement and can only be accessed via the elevator located in the lounge's ground-floor vestibule. (It's a kick, taking a lift to the loo.) Modai's freestanding, almond-shape bar is centered to make the one-room establishment feel like two: On one side the bartender mixes cocktails; on the other a duo of sushi chefs wrap fish. DJs spin on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Even the menu's back-page copy comes off as too slick: "Upon entering, you will be astounded by moods of lights articulating the central bar of granite & glass elements. Stepping thru [sic] the stainless metal elevator doors, you find yourself below street level breathily admiring the cultured marble floors." Sounds like the Onion's Smoov B, like a playa who thinks he's Wordsworth attempting to woo you. As you recline on only the most sumptuously upholstered chaise longue, our highly trained staff will eagerly render upon your palate an exquisitely prepared seduction of only the most delectable rice and fish....
So it's just plain funny that, for all its attempts at pretension, Modai feels and tastes an awful lot like a friendly corner diner that just so happens to serve sushi.
The food is doled out in plentiful portions (we had a hard time finishing most of what we ordered), and it's mostly straightforward, satisfying fare. The specialty drinks, though they read like any other fruity libations served at any other lounge, differ in that they're mixed astutely and subtly, with a mellower sweetness. And the service? Your own mother rarely waits on you this warmly.
It's amazing how often sushi joints will mess up a simple bowl of edamame (green soybeans steamed in their pods, dusted with salt and served as an appetizer) by either undercooking the pods (so the beans aren't soft enough) or overcooking them (so the pods look wilted). Modai gets it right and also offers a twist in its house-named, off-menu edamame, sauced with a chile-garlic blend that gives a nice kick, even if it does leave your fingers quite sticky. Another offbeat appetizer is the oshinko, slices of yellow Japanese pickle sprinkled with sesame seeds, lemony-bright in color and sweet-tart in flavor -- but even this, though a rarity, is unfussy. More uncomplicated fare is found in the yutofu, cubes of lightly fried tofu topped with green onions and ponzu sauce (a blend of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sake and seaweed often used as a dipping sauce for sashimi) and both the beef and tuna tataki (thin slices of pan-seared meat, dressed up with a drizzle of soy).
Soups and salads are unsurprising but serviceable: tamago (egg-drop) soup, miso soup (no better or worse than the instant kind you can buy at Schnucks), seaweed salad (a tasty pile, topped with sesame seeds) and the ginger house salad (iceberg lettuce topped with that ubiquitous, orange-hued ginger dressing). Likewise the everyday-style rolls (tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, etc.), which are perfectly good but not great. Modai's white rice is a bit on the sweet side, overshadowing the fish's, well, fishy qualities. (I don't think it a coincidence that, after one sushi-filled meal there, we didn't feel the need for dessert.)
Modai's sushi, perhaps ironically, makes a better impression when it is done up hypersushi-style, with lots of bells and whistles, as is the norm at most sushi lounges. Most crowd-pleasing were the dragon roll (snow crab, eel, avocado, cucumber), cheekily modeled on the plate with horns made of wasabi, and the ten-piece volcano roll, the first piece of vertical sushi architecture I can recall. The pieces of roll were stuffed to the brim with smoked salmon, shrimp, yellow onion, spicy mayo and lettuce, that last ingredient giving an unusual but enjoyable snap to the sushi's overall texture. The spicy mayo brought the whole thing together in such a way that it was more like a Dagwood sandwich than a sushi roll. When I said this out loud, our server (also the bartender) joked, "Presenting the world's first Asian po-boy."
All of this brings us to the service, probably the best part of Modai. Every member of the waitstaff I encountered was friendly to a fault and eager to please. They're as good at making menu recommendations as they are at making chitchat, and I'd return just to small-talk with the bartender. Toward the end of one visit, a manager speedily came over to inquire how our meal had been. When we told him we lived nearby, he remarked that, for as much as Modai has spent on advertising, it seems plain old word-of-mouth and nearby-neighbor curiosity has propelled their business so far. Considering the neighborhood feel to the place, that sounds about right.