The Other Critics

Sula Punches BellyQ as Tame, But Vettel Rubs It For Luck; Andy’s Thai Kitchen An Instant Hit

BellyQ. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Mike Sula has two opportunities to trot out his personal knowledge of Korean food this week, and neither one favors the restaurant in the end. He calls himself one of a “small minority who were unimpressed” by Bill Kim’s Urban Belly and Belly Shack, “largely by what I felt was a reckless, caricatured application of Asian flavors. At BellyQ, it’s just the opposite. There is nothing amplified about this food. Anyone with a minimum of experience with basic, traditional Korean cooking will find these flavors restrained, inoffensive, and muted… There’s the paradox of Kim’s food. The quality of ingredients and the manner in which they’re presented are significantly finer than you’ll encounter at a standard Korean barbecue joint. It’s all finesse and no muscle.” The restaurant’s Korean barbecue tables, he says, are “almost cosmetic. Their small portion sizes relative to cost ($18-$20) and the fact that there are only three dishes available to be cooked at table (the lemongrass chicken is always cooked by the kitchen, for fear you’ll do yourself in by undercooking it) make it unlikely BellyQ can inspire the sort of primal, gluttonous fire party that can be had at San Soo Gap San or Hai Woon Dae.” The exception to this timidity, he says, are the sauces which, conveniently, Kim bottles and sells in the restaurant’s to-go section: “He’s doing us all a favor by bottling these, particularly the sweet soy-and-balsamic-based ‘Seoul Sauce’ and a powerfully spicy and smoky ‘Belly Smoke.’” [Reader]

Sula is even harsher in a blog post on Bonsoiree under Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, which is closing too quickly to rate a print review: “Both Beverly Kim and Clark spent significant time in Korea studying royal court cuisine—the food eaten by the royals of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the peninsula for a little over five centuries… Kim never claimed she’d be approaching it from a strictly royal position, but I was keenly interested if any of that experience was going to be expressed. Very little. It was one of the more tedious meals I’ve had in memory. Over three-plus hours we were served a succession of flat, lifeless dishes that occasionally referenced some sense of [royal cuisine], but overall failed at communicating much of that aesthetic or any kind of strong identity at all.” It was harsh enough that it earned a Twitter response from Chef Kim: “Thank you for making it apparent that people want to keep Korean food at Lawrence Avenue! & there is no room for interpretation!” [Reader]

Phil Vettel was more favorably disposed to BellyQ in his review, though in the end it only rates two stars: “Kim’s cooking speaks to careful planning and a devotion to precision. Just about every ingredient on the menu, especially his proteins, undergoes a 24-hour marinade, but is handled gently, minimally thereafter. It’s the chef’s way of controlling his flavors… BellyQ is a consistently interesting restaurant, friendly, accommodating and affordable. I can’t say I love the place yet, but I’m definitely smitten.” [Tribune]

The new Andy’s Thai Kitchen comes in for reviews approaching rapture from two reviewers. While acknowledging the space is cramped and not terribly well organized (it must be uncomfortable if it gets loud), but Michael Nagrant says Andy Aroonrasameruang has “completely transformed it into maybe Chicago’s best Thai restaurant.” He says “Kao soy is to Thailand-based Thai restaurants what pad thai is to American Thai restaurants — a ubiquitous standard by which most Thai chefs are judged. Andy’s is a nest of crispy fried and soft steamed noodles plunged in to a thin, rich, mild chicken curry spiked with sour mustard sprinkled with toasted peanut and pungent bright lime.” In the end he makes a bold, but for longtime fans of Andy at his previous spot TAC Quick, justified claim: “There’s a guy named Andy Ricker, who in the last few years has been getting a lot of praise for bringing authentic Thai to America at his Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York. In fact he just won a James Beard award for his efforts. Aroonrasameruang’s food is just as good and deserves just as much acclaim.” [Sun-Times]

And Kevin Pang isn’t going to argue with Andy’s supremacy over everyday Thai: “Andy’s presentations require effort beyond stir-fry and slop. Kapi fried rice ($9.50) is served deconstructed, separated to shrimp paste fried rice here, boiled sweet pork in the corner, mango strips, scrambled egg shreds, dried shrimp and a tongue-destroying amount of bird’s eye chili to the side. As fried rice goes, this one’s a fascinating melange of sweet and briny, crunchy and tender, messing with your fried rice expectations.” His beef is that takeout orders keep the phone ringing while it can be hard to get table service at all, but the food ensures that he believes you should go for yourself. [Tribune]

Speaking of restaurants that are already gone, Kendal Duque’s version of City Tavern is praised by Peter Gianopulos as “a magical experience—like slipping through the looking glass into an era when cocktails leaned on rum and milk, pies were stuffed with steak, and every dish came with a rich sauce that deserved its own loaf of bread. It’s the 18th century reborn.” And gone again already, as Jackie Shen steps in to import Asian and Caribbean flavors and muddle the 18th century concept. One presumes The Trenchermen will be longer-lasting, and Gianopulos says you can “pore over the menu all you want, trying to imagine what chai tofu ice cream tastes like and how one makes kimchi mortadella, but it will bring you no closer to understanding the spirit of the place.” He finds their creations new and striking, if sometimes too bitter— “Trenchermen is at its best when it’s most playful, using ingredients both familiar and exotic to craft daring and electrifying creations. There’s wizardry in this lab—er, kitchen—if you have the courage to partake in the experiment.” [Chicago]

David Tamarkin is happy with the new restaurant in The Peninsula, imaginatively dubbed The Lobby: “[Chef Lee] Wolen’s food is deeply delicious and palpably soulful. It quiets cravings that live deep in the trenches of the belly, and does it with astonishing grace. You can see this in his carrot salad, where the sweet, roasted vegetable is presented with puréed raisins and bulgur wheat, half of which has been fried to achieve the addictive pop of Rice Krispies. It’s in his scallops: Wolen offsets the butteriness of the bivalves, which have never been cooked to more precision, by setting them in an orange urchin broth. It may as well be a bowl of delicious seawater.” [TOC]

Kenny Zuckerberg says the new Avec under Erling Wu-Bower is, basically, as solid as the old Avec under Koren Grieveson: “When people ask me what the best restaurant in Chicago is, my reply is ‘I have no idea, but if it’s the best cooking you want, that’s at Avec.’… Has an inedible bowl of cartilage-laden crab at the hot new Italian restaurant pissed you off lately? Go to Avec and discouragement will vanish. Avec takes food seriously.” [FOF]

Meanwhile, if you were wondering where that cartilage-laden crab was from, his next review makes it clear: “There may be reasons to go to RPM Italian, but food isn’t one of them… I had to send back my squid ink pasta with crab after awkwardly spitting out two 3-inch pieces of cartilage which came from the first two bites. Crab isn’t easy to clean, but this was a ridiculous level of carelessness or incompetence.” [FOF]

Sula Punches BellyQ as Tame, But Vettel Rubs It For Luck; Andy’s Thai Kitchen An