The Other Critics

Nagrant Kickflips Over BellyQ; Kramer Stings Jellyfish With One Star

BellyQ. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Reviews are always just one snapshot in time, no matter how much they pretend to authority for the ages; and Michael Nagrant notes how things can change: “My honesty came down hard the last two times Bill Kim opened restaurants (Urban Belly and Belly Shack). I thought the flavors were muted and the food was expensive… But somehow the broths at Urban Belly got more soulful, and the dumplings were springier. At Belly Shack, they put cool old skateboards on the wall over some of the faux graffiti I once thought was cheesy. And most important, whether it was tangy Brussels sprouts with chorizo or a seasonal riff on Mexican elotes, the food at both places had become some of the highest quality and value in Chicago.” All this is by way of leading up to a rave for BellyQ: “Unlike the early days at Urban Belly, the flavors at bellyQ are assertive. The dishes represent a fusion of sorts of Kim’s gourmet sensibility (he once cooked at Charlie Trotter’s) and his Korean heritage. I’m guessing some of my peers will suggest this is fussy or inauthentic, but to me, at least this time around, it’s delightfully original.” [Sun-Times]

At first Mike Sula finds a sinister note at Andy’s Thai Kitchen: “There’s a bamboo fish trap hanging from the ceiling above the register at Andy’s Thai Kitchen. It is cylindrical, about the length and diameter of a human arm, with its opening aimed toward the door to entice potential customers as if they’re hapless fish. But if you take this good luck charm for its full figurative purpose and imagine yourself a fish in chef-owner Andy Aroonrasameruang’s trap, it means you won’t be able to turn and swim away before he excises your air bladder, chops it into pieces, and deep-fries them so they puff like Cheetos.” Um, we were just looking for a Thai meal, not the Bates Motel… Happily you’re on more benign, not to mention more familiar, turf once you order from chef-owner Andy Aroonrasameruang’s menu, where many of the dishes are straight off his TAC Quick menu and have a similar eye-opening blend of sweetness and pungency: “Aroonrasameruang’s style skews sweeter than those at other beloved Thai spots such as Spoon, Sticky Rice, and Aroy Thai, which broadens his appeal. Sweetness is the primary foil for other strong flavors, but it rarely threatens to dominate. It mitigates the richness of the preserved duck eggs topped with minced chicken and fried basil leaves, and it tempers an omelet cooked with the sulfurous herb cha om and bathed in sour curry.” [Reader]

David Tamarkin is fine with muted, familiar Asian flavors at Embeya, at least at the pricepoint of the $29 Simple Sunday menu: “Even when I was drinking the thick, syrupy Field of Concord cocktail (it was like sucking down liquified Smucker’s), even when I was chewing on unmemorable shrimp dumplings, I still had some love for the place. For this I blame—make that credit—chef Thai Dang’s ribs. These things are big like baby dinosaur bones, and they seem to hit every texture (crisp skin, toothsome meat, melting fat) and be glazed with every flavor (sweet tamarind, bracing garlic).” Of a Vietnamese papaya salad, he says: “This dish is in keeping with so much about Embeya, which doesn’t push East Asian (mostly Vietnamese) flavors forward but rather simply executes them well.” [TOC]

Julia Kramer is far harsher about another hip new Asian spot, Jellyfish, helmed by former Chizakaya chef Harold Jurado: “Bad sushi is sort of like pornography: You know it when you see it, no rubric or definition necessary.” But at Jellyfish she finds “chewy, off-putting shrimp or a blunt cut of watery-tasting tuna”; “the Signature Sour cocktail lacks necessary body, instead tasting like soupy egg whites; a tuna appetizer is dominated by punishing jalapeño heat; for dessert, there’s a dense, disastrous flan.” One star! [TOC]

Kramer’s review of Masa Azul must predate this week’s new menu but she sees in new chef Jonathan Zaragoza’s original menu the same signposts to a new direction that he ultimately did: “This guy makes tremendously juicy cochinita pibil (braised pork settled into fresh tortillas and brought to life with a drizzle of habanero salsa) and puts considerable care into a chunky, complex roasted-tomatillo salsa. Shareable snacks like these are perfect for Masa Azul, which I’ve always felt would do itself a favor to err on the bar side of bar/restaurant.” [TOC]

Kate Bernot at Redeye offers the first take on La Sirena Clandestina, which seems to have taken off as the spot of the moment, and she says it’s for good reason: “The cocktails are unlike anything else you can sip in the West Loop. Beverage director Justin Anderson, formerly of Branch 27 and The Bedford, proves he can stir up both classic and creative drinks that riff on the South American inspiration. I could almost smell The Cusco Cup ($10) before I tasted it, with big, fresh cucumber, lemon and ginger scents that are bolstered by a distinctive, bitter bump of Fernet Branca.” As for the food, “’Fresh’ was the first word on my lips once I finally stopped scooping up mounds of swordfish ceviche ($10), whose large, rustic chunks of mild fish soak up tangy citrus and reached my mouth via an addictive house-made saltine cracker. Those who missed Manion—or didn’t know him to begin with—have an excellent reason to get (re)acquainted with his straight-forward, honest flavors.” [Redeye]

Nagrant Kickflips Over BellyQ; Kramer Stings Jellyfish With One Star