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Swallowing Skepticism

A martini with an intriguing ingredient and mega slices of fish squash Dana's misconceptions.
Monday Oct 01, 2007.     By Dana Kavan
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: Clifton Henri; pictured: Kathy Rhee serves up The Aloe martini
Drink of the week: The Aloe martini at Blu Coral.

The damage: $10.

Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? Considering how many sushi restaurants open each year, it's only a matter of time before they outnumber dusty taverns lit up by Old Style signs. And while any foodie appreciates having options, maki lovers can only make so many distinctions when selecting the location of their next feast. I tend to lump my sushi spots into four categories: BYOB, BYOB and dirt cheap, affordable but swanky enough to impress out-of-towners, and Toro Sushi, the restaurant I would save should all eateries face extinction. One sect of sushi spots I wasn't interested in sorting: overpriced suburban transplants. So when my friends reserved a table for six at Blu Coral, a Wicker Park stop for rolls that ring in at $13-plus whose original location is in Woodridge, I choked back my preconceptions and hoped for the best.

How it went down: My friends and I waited for our table at the bar, which had an electric-blue hue akin to a raver's glow stick and seats that put us in prime view of two side-by-side big screens playing colorful Japanese videos. Before even opening the drink menu, I found myself again tackling my assumptions. Lackluster drink lists, populated with fruity, ho-hum concoctions like pomegranate and lychee martinis, seem to find their way into every sushi joint, almost as if they receive a dose of predictability with their daily fresh fish shipments. But there on Blu's menu, I found The Aloe.

While I was growing up, my mom kept an aloe plant in our dining room. We'd use the medicinal liquid in its leaves to cure the itch from bug bites or soothe sunburns, but it never dawned on me to use the cactus-like plant to create a refreshing libation. A combination of Imperia vodka, fresh lime juice and an aloe puree crafted by Blu Coral's chef, The Aloe squashed my skepticism with one sip. I expected it to taste like a cucumber martini, cucumber being the most-similar ingredient to aloe that I'd ever seen in a cocktail, but I was totally off. The tart but not too sweet mix tasted like a zippy grape soda, complete with a slightly effervescent finish.

Would I want to become a regular? Blu Coral leans toward the pricey side, but it doesn't feel like a rip-off. The spicy tuna roll packed in a slice of fish that, when unraveled, would've probably spanned the length of my pristine white plate, and the asparagus beef roll was a steal at eight bucks for six thick chunks of filet mignon wrapped around charred spears. And the atmosphere matches the price tag, with the dimly lit black- and red-accented room giving off an upscale, stylish vibe played up by a soundtrack of mellow beats. Still, I'm hoping I'll never run short of those Old Style pubs. Their ambience may not have all the bells and whistles, but I like a little dust and the price is right.

Dana Kavan scours the city for drink deals so good you'll offer to buy a round and creative libations that outshine your average on-the-rocks concoctions. Want to give Dana tips on where to rack up a bar tab? Share your finds before her next night out.


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