The Other Critics

Sula Notes Small Changes at Lao Yunnan; Campagna Rebuts Trenchermen Raves

The buffet of cold appetizers at Lao Yunnan.
The buffet of cold appetizers at Lao Yunnan. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Most of the critics seem to be taking a welcome break from the fine dining beat for more modest-priced, ethnic haunts this week. Mike Sula goes back to the former Spring World, now Lao Yunnan, to see what’s changed, and the answer seems to be not much: “Many if not most old favorites from Spring World have been given new names on [Tony] Hu’s menu, which has been jumbled and rearranged… One of Hu’s more alluring dishes is the Lao Special Whole Fish—a preparation similar to Ma Gong La Po’s ‘grilled fish hot pot,’ though not a hot pot at all. Instead, the fish is served bathing in red-hot chile, floating among soft garlic cloves and bright green onions and cilantro. The flesh pulls easily from the bones, silky and sweet… And of course the most iconic Yunnanese dish remains: Cross-Bridge rice noodles, a pork-and-chicken-broth soup customizable in a variety of ways, with beef or pork tripe and blood cakes.” [Reader]

Kevin Pang sends you to Glenview’s Cho Jung less for the Korean soups and stews often posted about on LTHForum, but for the haemul pajeon, a variation on the Asian seafood pancake/omelet/fritter found in many cultures: “The haemul pajeon here, a seafood version mandatory with OB or Hite beer, embeds diced squid, mussels and green onion slivers into its lacy golden crust. Unlike countless unfortunate versions, where the substandard fry job turns batter to an omeletlike mush, Cho Jung’s is feathery crisp, light as beer batter. To begin a meal here with haemul pajeon is to reconsider why ordering subsequent entrees is necessary.” But you order the stews anyway because “The broth has the depth of something simmered with flavor-enriching bones, a gritty gold pan in every spoon with peppers, chilies and nutty perilla seeds (ground wild sesame). The stew soothes from the inside-outward, especially when you combine rice and pick out the spoon-tender pork from the neck bones’ crevices.” [Tribune]

Michael Nagrant’s pick is Del Toro in Pilsen, run by a family making their first venture into full restaurateurship after many years owning a grocery: “Del Toro, it turns out, is the oasis for those waiting hours to get a seat on the Big Star patio or in the Frontera Grill dining room. While Del Toro doesn’t ‘gourmet things up’ with pork belly like Big Star, or use the pristine local organic bounty of Midwestern farmers like Rick Bayless, it’s pretty much the prototype for what an upscale taqueria should be… Tacos are served on a traditional double tortilla set-up and meats feature crispy brown crusts and juicy interiors. Steak and chicken are both excellent, but it’s the glossy orange-lacquered pork or Puerco adobada version — where the meat gets rubbed with a nice slather of vinegar-tanged paprika, oregano, garlic and salt — that’s the best of the protein tacos.” [Sun-Times]

From there to the highest high end as Phil Vettel returns to Charlie Trotter’s one last time: “Trotter’s stock in trade was to dazzle diners with the breadth of his sourcing (he once told me ecstatically about getting onto a small-volume fish supplier’s client list, which took a couple of years) and his novel pairings. Both approaches were on display on a dish of Muscovy duck breast graced with smoked-coconut foam and a nearly clear sauce of Venezuelan chocolate; and with golden thread fish (delicious and snapperlike) over a subtly sweet tomato-water chutney, hints of anise and Pernod and cipollini onions.” [Tribune]

Joe Campagna files a dispatch from the You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me desk when his Trenchermen experiences fall drastically short of what Mike Sula and Julia Kramer reviewed last week: “Timeout said it was a ‘seminal’ opening and the Chicago Reader claimed, ‘It was in the new class of restaurants like Next, Goosefoot, El Ideas and Acadia.’ Well I’m calling BULLSHIT in a big way.” Cold dishes, weirdly hot and cold dishes, slooooow service… “Trenchermen leaves me with more questions and concerns than answers. Partly, with two chefs how is any of this going on and acceptable to them? If this is the first time they’re hearing these issues that is a bigger issue for me. Hot, timely and correctly seasoned food is all I ask for and Trenchermen delivered way too infrequently. Service is a major obstacle in many ways that hopefully can get ironed out.” [Chicago Food Snob]

David Tamarkin finds Piccolo Sogno Due so attractive that the occasional failings really sting: “[Chef Todd] Stein does sometimes lean a little too subtle. His perfectly fried white bait cries out for salt, and his thick strands of scialatielli, though tossed with monkfish, tomatoes and garlic, fails to pop. But his trapanese—tender shellfish set in a spicy tomato broth and dotted with punchy almond pesto—is a dish that’s impossible to stop eating. Same goes for his pasta pockets with foie gras, which despite their richness are things your fork will go for again and again. Stein’s roasted octopus might be the most tender in the city, and his rabbit loin is surely among the juiciest. But his meatballs and his pizzas? They can only be called inoffensive.” [TOC]

“No need to wonder what a steakhouse would look like if its design was inspired solely by Pinterest. Just go to Grass Fed, the cutest restaurant this side of Molly’s Cupcakes,” says Julia Kramer. But the small, extremely-steak-focused Wicker Park spot sets up expectations by having only one dish (steak frites) and substantially less than perfect doesn’t cut it: “The frites taste like soggy, old In-N-Out fries, skin-on but not the least bit crispy. Last and certainly least, there is the puzzle of the steak itself. True, the grass-fed beef is cooked to the proper temperature, and it’s tender and juicy. And yet—it’s a really bad steak. It lacks that enticing exterior crust and char, and it simply has no beef flavor. Which perhaps is why the kitchen decided to bury it in salt and marinate it in a tarragon-heavy herb sauce (which is also plated underneath the steak). Show me someone who wants their steak to taste primarily like anise, and dinner for two at Grass Fed is on me.” [TOC]

Kate Bernot is the first to venture into Bonsoirée under Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark and review it, and she’s generally happy with the Asian food: “Words like ‘delicate’ and ‘muted’ came to mind as I sipped thin broths and ethereal sauces. Her light hand in spicing and seasoning places a premium on the dishes’ unexpected textures. Battered smelts are fried whole—tail and all—in a smart preparation that preserves the oiliness of the fish but balances with crunch. Foie gras semifreddo, a chilled, whipped ball with a decadent, pate flavor, is rolled in puffed buckwheat that cracked and melted in my mouth like a gourmet version of Dibs ice cream nuggets.” But there’s a big but: the price, especially now that Bonsoiree is no longer BYO. “Bonsoiree does nearly everything right in terms of friendly service, pacing and sleek design, but the $460 price tag (weekend dinner for two with drink pairings) puts it in the same wallet-thinning category as heavy-hitters like Alinea and Tru. While Bonsoiree hasn’t lost all the magic that made it so beloved, it needs more polish and pizazz if it’s going to take on the big boys.” [Redeye]

Sula Notes Small Changes at Lao Yunnan; Campagna Rebuts Trenchermen Raves