Years ago, Chef Mari Katsumura was part of the team that was awarded the coveted three Michelin stars at Grace. Now, barely a year since her old haunt’s surprising closure, Katsumura is stepping into its shoes to create a fine dining experience unlike one Chicago—or the country—has ever seen before.
“In terms of what we’re doing, our concept and menu is totally different from anything that anybody has seen in Chicago. I’m really excited to showcase something from my Japanese heritage that nobody has seen yet.”
While the space will largely remain the same, aesthetics aren’t the only difference diners will note as Yūgen blossoms out of Grace’s old space.
“Coming on to this project, I have to pay my dues and respect to what existed prior,” Katsumura says of this fateful journey. “They did amazing things here at Grace. But I’m ready to change the culture proactively.”
Yūgen, meaning “the power to conjure indescribable appreciation for the simplicity of beauty”, has already made a bold statement by introducing an entirely women-led team.
“Having a women-led team was intentional but also serendipitous,” Katsumura states. “When I came on, all the strong candidates happened to be female. We loved the idea and became very deliberate about it. It reflects the standard of excellence we envision the space to have. I could not be more excited.”
The restaurant will host two different concepts, allowing for itself to be a space that is playful and creative with menus. The 68-seat main dining room will provide a formal tasting menu while the front room will be a 16-seat cocktail lounge named Kaisho that has a la carte offerings from an entirely different menu.
“I want to make this a positive environment where cooks, sous chefs, FOH…anyone…can really educate themselves and grow. [In] a lot of fine dining establishments, you just become a cog in the wheel and every day is the same. The intense stress becomes monotonous. I want this to be a creative environment.”
With regards to the cocktail lounge, Katsumura confirms that it will be treated as an entirely separate entity.
“[Kaisho is] more Izakaya style,” Katsumura describes. “It’s going to have a very different look and feel. We’re treating it as a separate entity. Even the wine service will be different. It’s more of a ‘choose your own journey’ with this menu.”
Katsumura’s enthusiasm for this vast opportunity is clear.
“It is a dream to bring a contemporary Japanese concept to life. While most [restaurants] have menus that are contemporary American with global influence, we are focusing on contemporary Japanese as the foundation.”
Blending her extensive experience with both fine dining and casual formats, Katsumura is leveraging all her deeply ingrained hospitality knowledge and pouring it into Yūgen.
“My mother and late father, Yoshi Katsumura, taught me early on about hospitality. I grew up in their restaurant, watching and learning what it means to build your life around the pleasure of serving others.”
While Katsumura is still unsure of what Yūgen’s biggest struggle might be, its biggest asset is without a doubt the team. Katsumura’s resume boasts a long list of Chicago’s award-winning establishments, including Blackbird, Grace, Acadia, and Entente. The rest of the team was carefully chosen to fit the ethos that Yūgen chooses to cultivate. To put it simply and in Katsumura’s own words, “We want it to be the best restaurant in the country.”
As of last night, Yūgen is officially open.
Open Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-10pm; Friday/Saturday from 5pm-11pm
Website coming soon