Aspen Times Weekly: Bon Voyage! Airport Food Checks Itself

by Amanda Rae


Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Terminal 2

10000 Bessie Coleman Dr.

Chicago, Ill.


Open daily 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

AIRPORT SUSHI: It sounds like a bad trip waiting to happen. But on a layover at Chicago O’Hare International Airport recently, I find myself lured by the sea song of Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, a sleek restaurant awash in glass and white marble with a glowing, marine-blue bar. I’ve passed it before, spying jumbo shrimps on ice, flashes of green bamboo, and a row of white-capped sushi chefs bent in concentration, but time between flights always seemed too tight for a proper meal.

So, now in the oft-hailed “worst airport in America” again — this time with two hours to kill — I make my move. I’m gonna feast on raw fish in Terminal 2, preconceived notions be damned.

When I arrive, the place is humming with quiet efficiency to backdrop views of a lavender twilight sky above the tarmac outside. Half of the 18 seats on one side of the bar are occupied with patrons quietly building piles of edamame shells and dipping into giant bowls of udon noodles, so the hostess leads me to the empty side opposite. Here, with my back facing the windows, is a prime people-watching spot.

Flush with Christmas cash, I order a $15 cocktail, “Osaka Nights” (sake, Grand Marnier, muddled lime, Chambord), and settle into a cushy, white leather barstool. The drink list, by the way, is impressive compared to other fly-zone watering holes: 15 kinds of cold and hot sake, sho chu, and plum wine; as many domestic and imported wines by the glass; Kirin, Sapporo and Sam Adams on tap; and a handful of specialty cocktails with names like Tokyo Typhoon. More posh than Chili’s, for sure, with prices to match.

Block off peripheral views of a snack kiosk, tech-accessories boutique and taxed travelers scurrying past, and Wicker Park—named for the Windy City’s trendy, eclectic neighborhood — just might fit in there among other upscale restaurants. No surprise, then, that Wicker Park won a 2011 Excellence in Restaurant Design award from the American Society of Interior Designers. I’m a sucker for sexy restaurants.

In addition to the new soup bowls with meats, vegetables and boiled egg are raw bar delights (oysters, wasabi shrimp, king crab), Asian salads, 12 signature rolls, and all the standard sashimi and nigiri combinations. I request a few rolls and hope they match the atmosphere, and my appetite.

To a girl who has been fasting all day, the platter set before me is a sight to behold: A tidy mosaic of candy pink, atomic orange and spring green. I polish off a zippy seaweed salad and begin the conquest.

True to its name, Spanish Dynamite, one of the most popular items on the menu, is my favorite: yellowtail, shallot, spicy crab and fresh tuna, each piece topped with a cilantro leaf and thinly shaved jalapeño and sitting in a ponzu pool. The Hot Night, with shrimp tempura inside and fresh tuna on top, is extra piquant, thanks to a double-whammy of chile sauce and Sriracha plus spicy radish and scallion.

There are also unconventional offerings: the Tenderloin Roll with asparagus, shredded daikon, carrot, spicy radish and mustard-soy dressing and a soy-paper wrapped chicken teriyaki roll with avocado, chive and fried harusame noodles. The rice is sticky and seasoned as it should be; the rolls don’t fall apart. Most important, the sashimi tastes super-fresh. Matsu it ain’t, but a far, foreign cry from, say, City Market.

Airports across the country have been stepping up their dining game in recent years, says Frank Sickelsmith, adult beverage and restaurant development VP for HMSHost, which operates eateries in 114 airports around the globe—including the 20 busiest in North America. But the trend toward premium eats began more than a decade ago.

“We started working with Todd English in Boston, and Wolfgang Puck,” Sickelsmith says. “At that point it was more celebrity chef-driven, with folks people see on TV. Now it’s more about celebrated chefs in a specific city. A good example of that is Rick Bayless in Chicago with two Tortas Frontera locations. When we do a redevelopment, almost every time the airport wants representation of their hometown, and the best way for us to do that is to get local chefs and to use local farms.”

In fact, Wicker Park will participate in Chicago’s Restaurant Week, Jan. 30 to Feb. 12, offering a three-course menu ($33, see opposite). Though I don’t believe lobster and green tea are Chi-Town treasures.

Fast-casual and fancy airport eateries are opening everywhere. LAX is nurturing an $80 million crop of new restaurants, including Michael Voltaggio’s ink.sack, Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill, and Umami Burger. This summer will welcome Golden Road’s Point the Way Café, an offshoot of the city’s popular brewpub, and Danny Meyer’s beachy Blue2o.

DIA is on a roll, too, with LoHi transplant Root Down in Concourse C and Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs and Elway’s Steakhouse in Concourse B. Naturally, DFW and SFO are aces in fine fare, boasting a kaleidoscope of options from Michelin star-winning chefs, master mixologists, and top sommeliers.

No doubt, the force driving Wicker Park’s success since it opened to solid reviews in 2010 is chef Susumu “Go” Shibata. Native to Japan’s Akita Prefecture, Chef Go climbed ranks for nearly a decade in his home country before immigrating to New York in 1983 and working for restaurants in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Omaha.

“(Wicker Park) was the first one that showed that sushi, when done the right way — it’s open, you can see them producing it — (can succeed in an airport),” Sickelsmith says. Hence Umaizushi, the HMSHost brand behind similar airport spots in Honolulu, Zurich and Dubai.

Quality and safety are crucial, of course, but, “in an airport environment, you don’t care if you get great service, you want efficient service,” Sickelsmith explains. “By the time you get to an airport restaurant, you’ve been beaten up by five different people, you know? We want to create an environment of simple kindness.”

What about the fact that airport-goers are a captive audience, literally, to whatever is served? “If we’re gonna be there,” Sickelsmith declares, “let’s make it good.”

Fast-forward three hours, from ORD to ASE: I’m boarding a complimentary shuttle from Grand Junction Regional Airport in the middle of a snowstorm and, while super annoyed, well, at least I’m not hangry.

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