In a city filled with pan-Asian cuisine, Shinsen stands out from the rest
October 9, 2019
Shinsen is new — so new that they have yet to publish a website or secure a liquor license — but don’t let that deter you. Chef Wetchapan Worawongsatikorn, who goes by Pook, serves up Japanese and Thai fusion with an eye for detail and quality unrivaled in Evanston.
The restaurant at 1322 Chicago Ave., just south of the city’s downtown area, opened its doors in early September after the previous eatery in the space, Asian Cajun Too, closed earlier in the year. The space feels somewhat rushed and perhaps a bit unstylish, but try not to let that deter you either. Everything about our meal — from the meticulously presented loose leaf teas to the fresh, tender fish — was pretty close to perfect.
Pook, who is from Thailand and works alongside a Japanese chef, told me he strives to incorporate Shinsen — the Japanese word for fresh and honest — in every aspect of the restaurant’s food and hospitality. He said the food is different from other places in Evanston, and after trying as much of the menu as I could with a group of five, I agree. Though Evanston seems to have a plethora of pan-Asian and Asian fusion spots, none feel as carefully thought out or committed to quality ingredients as Shinsen.
Take the tea menu, which has several black, white and green varieties along with Thai iced coffee and tea. The prices rival that of a mid-range cocktail ($8-$10), but it is well worth it. Each pot of loose leaf hot tea can serve two to three people, and, because of the quality of the leaves, your server will refill the pot with enough hot water to last you throughout the meal.
And the presentation is impeccable: An elegant glass tea pot and small double-walled tea cups sit atop a wooden tray, served alongside bite-sized pieces of banana bread and brown and white sugar shaped into flowers. Our server brought an hourglass to let us know when our tea was ready to pour. Shinsen is BYOB, but I suggest skipping the booze in favor of one of the teas (or at least ordering it in addition to a bottle of “Two-Buck Chuck” from the Trader Joe’s down the road).
The extensive food menu is split into a few parts: a selection of sashimi and maki rolls, cold and hot appetizers, rice, noodles and robata. Robata is a Japanese cooking technique where the chef grills food over white oak charcoal, and Shinsen does it particularly well. You can choose from a variety of meats and vegetables — we went with the asparagus (tender, flavorful, smoky) and the skirt steak (a generous amount of well-cooked meat served with homemade wasabi and soy sauce).
The hamachi (a Japanese yellowtail), sweet and sour calamari and red curry mussels also stood out. The hamachi was notably fresh and high-quality, with just enough yuzu sauce on top to complement the fish without overpowering it. The calamari was fried and covered in an elevated version of General Tso’s sauce, creating the ideal blend of crispy and soggy. The mussels, however, probably elicited the most praise from our group. They were served with pillowy rolls of scallion bread that served as the perfect vehicle for soaking up the leftover sauce (a flavorful curry with rich coconut milk and a touch of Thai basil).
The prices at Shinsen are reasonable, especially compared to the rest of the Evanston food scene, but dining here felt like an experience. So save your visit for a special meal — maybe a birthday or with friends visiting from out of town. Order a lot, share a lot and plan to stay awhile. I’ll certainly be back to try the sashimi. And the ramen. And the sticky rice dessert. And everything else.