For decades, Kuni’s in Evanston stays true to sushi tradition

A sushi set and oyako-don at Kuni's Japanese Restaurant in Evanston (Katherine Lee/MEDILL)

By Katherine Hyunjung Lee

On Saturday afternoon, two elderly Japanese women sat at the sushi bar at Kuni’s Japanese Restaurant in Evanston. They were waiting for their “omakase,” or chef’s choice, sushi lunch.

Yuji Kunii, the sushi chef and owner of the store, stood behind the sushi bar, carefully making a series of exquisitely shaped sushi and serving them one piece at a time. With each piece, they thanked him.

They asked him questions from time to time. He answered them quietly in Japanese. They knew him well, and he remembered them well. They had been patrons of the restaurant for decades.

Nestled in the suburbs of Evanston is a small sushi restaurant whose long history still eludes most residents. For more than three decades, the owners of Kuni’s have dedicated themselves to the artisanship of traditional Japanese cuisine.

At the sushi bar, Kunii, who is 68 years old, is a figure of charisma and authority, giving instructions to his two assistant sushi chefs in a stern voice and greeting customers with a smile and bow. (Kuni’s is the namesake of its owner but without the final “i”.)

In conversation, he is hardly the same person. When answering questions, either in Japanese or English, Kunii is soft-spoken and reserved, saying few words.

His Korean wife, P.T. “Christine” Kunii, is his more sociable counterpart in the restaurant, walking around and tending to every table with a pot of green tea, engaging in lively conversations with customers and asking if they need anything. She practically finishes his sentences whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Many Japanese restaurants in the U.S. boast glitzy, modern interiors furnished with sleek, dark wood. Not Kuni’s. The restaurant is quiet, even when it’s full. Japanese string music plays faintly in the background. When Kunii opened the store 30 years ago, he modeled his restaurant after the sushi restaurant in Tokyo where he had previously worked. He wanted it to have the warmth of a family restaurant.

Kunii was 15 years old when he began training to become a sushi chef as an apprentice to a master chef in Tokyo. He started by learning how to deal with the most basic ingredients of sushi–rice. To this day, he says rice is one of the most important parts of the sushi.

After he had developed expertise as a sushi chef, Kunii moved to the U.S. to work at a sushi restaurant in Hawaii. His colleague invited him to join his restaurant in Chicago, and Kunii worked at the downtown Chicago restaurant Hatsu Hana for seven years before opening his own store in Evanston in 1987.

“People here did not know about sushi when we opened. They weren’t used to eating raw fish,” Kunii said.

When the store opened, a town official told the Kuniis that Kuni’s was one of just three Japanese restaurants in Evanston. Today, Evanston has more than ten Japanese restaurants of all different sorts.

“They’re a little mixed up,” Yuji Kunii said, with a soft chuckle.

“He thinks some of them don’t know what they’re doing,” Christine Kunii explained. “Of course, it’s everyone’s own choice.”

Located on Main Street, a couple of subway stops south of the Northwestern University campus, Kuni’s is in a relatively quiet part of Evanston. The restaurant can seat 65 customers at a time, and on weekdays, anywhere from 35 to 50 diners will come in for lunch or dinner.

On weekends, the restaurant often serves 100 or more customers. While the restaurant attracts nearby Evanston residents, it also has a loyal following from the greater Chicago area, including former patrons of Hatsu Hana.

Kunii said that at the sushi bar, where customers are directly consuming the food that he makes and actively engaging with him, he, as chef, is responsible for taking care of his customers. He is passing these valuable lessons onto the next generation as well.

In a few years, he plans to give the store to his nephew Jun Chung, who has been working alongside him at the restaurant for over a decade. Chung is the son of Christine Kunii’s younger sister.

Growing up, Chung had always seen his aunt work at the restaurant, but when he expressed his interest in working for them, he was told that with no experience, he would only get in their way. Chung went to work at another Japanese restaurant for several years before finally securing a place for himself at his aunt’s and uncle’s restaurant. At Kuni’s, Chung re-learned everything he knew about sushi.

“I taught him because we are serving raw fish, we always need clean, fresh fish,” Kunii said.

Being in Evanston, Kunii does not have the luxury of going to a fish market to pick out fish every day. But he maintains partnerships with several suppliers and selects the best supplier each time he puts in a new order.

Serving fresh food demands not just an understanding of the ingredient, but an understanding of what the customers will need.

“[Yuji] will take a look [around] the restaurant and see how much sushi he will need right away,” Christine Kunii said. “He makes the right amount to keep the ingredients fresh. If you make all your sushi ahead of time and keep them refrigerated, that’s bad for the sushi.”

The Kuniis anticipate that Chung will do well.

“He tries hard. He never takes things for granted,” Christine Kunii said. “In a way, I think Jun is even better at taking care of the customers.” Sitting next to his wife, Yuji Kunii nodded in agreement.

For now, Yuji Kunii is the beloved head chef at the sushi bar, greeting the customers who are visiting for his sushi. When he is at home after work, Kunii is watching documentaries about fish–what types of fish are caught where, which places may provide good supply.

“Even when he’s taking a break, he’s thinking about sushi,” Christine Kunii said.

Saturday lunch time ended at 1:30 p.m. By 2 p.m., the restaurant had completely emptied, the doors locked for afternoon break. The restaurant would reopen at 5:30 p.m. for dinner, but the sushi chefs and staff were busy. Jun Chung had left to buy more fresh vegetables.

At 2:15 p.m., after a short break, Yuji Kunii was already on his feet, preparing for dinner. He had to start now, he said, to make sure the sushi rice was ready for dinner.

A sushi set and oyako-don at Kuni’s Japanese Restaurant in Evanston (Katherine Lee/MEDILL)