Guest post. Weeee!!! first guest post of the week comes from Jonathan. I'm always conflicted when I see delicious looking food that somehow aren't so delicious. I bought some "Rice Drink" from Trader Joe's the other day. Kinda weird... but oddly satisfying. This sounds like the opposite. Kinda good, but me want more! Right.
This year, more than any, I have been acutely aware of two things: burger joints and noodle bars. And besides both those items (along with cupcakes and dumplings) being prominently featured on Food in Mouth, it seems that these food destinations are popping up more and more these days. How many celebrity chefs have started burger joints recently? Macy's "chef-centric" seventh floor in Chicago is a nice microcosm of this phenomenon. Across from one another are Marcus Samuelsson's Marc Burger1 and Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi. Now I have to admit I'm a sucker for trends. So when Bill Kim opened his noodle and dumpling house in Avondale, it was time to make a trip up north.
The restaurant itself is on a quiet street located in a small strip mall. The restaurant is small and would be easily overlooked, if not for a small collection of patrons oozing out of the front door. Inside are four large communal tables and a small area for ordering in the far back.
I walked in and was immediately greeted and escorted to the register. Behind the counter is an open view into the kitchen. The menu is short and deceptively simple, appropriately matching the décor – 5 dumplings, 4 rices, 6 noodles and 4 sides. Why deceptive? Dumplings are simply described as "pork & cilantro," hiding the coordinated mess to come. I ordered - lamb & brandy dumplings, duck & Pho spices dumplings, Phat rice (a mix of the three other rices – short rib & scallion, pork belly & pineapple, and organic pea shoots & thai basil), kimchi, udon, and Urbanbelly ramen – and walked to the communal table with a number eagerly awaiting my order.
The food was good, but in a way disappointing. Steve Dolinsky (the "hungry hound") asked, is this Chicago's answer to Momofuku? Unfortunately for Bill Kim, and even more for Chicago, I would have to say no. The dumplings were, more than anything, disappointing. I had been reading glowing reviews about the dumplings across lth forum, so I was perhaps most excited about them. Dumplings are a simple food, and while it's nice to "elevate" them, elevating them should make them better. The duck & Pho spices were good, but not great. However, to be fair, I never really like my dumplings deep-fried. The lamb & brandy dumplings had a different problem. They were in a smooth soft wrapper with moist succulent meat infused with a strong brandy flavor. The problem with the lamb & brandy dumplings was going to be an ongoing theme for the evening, over-seasoning. Everything that night was just too salty2. The kalbi on the rice was soft, juicy, perfectly cooked, but too salty. Even the cabbage that accompanied the duck dumplings were fragrant, but too salty.
The noodles were less disappointing. The udon was fairly straightforward with a coriander lime broth and plump shrimp. The Urbanbelly ramen was perhaps the highlight of the night. The ramen was in a shitake and pho broth with strong anise notes and topped with soft stewed pork belly. But while the ramen is good, it is not much better than the ramen at the food court at Mitsuwa. It's different, but not necessarily better.
Am I being unfair? Perhaps it is because I wanted it so much to be good that I judge it more harshly. Am I like Mulder, so desperately wanting to believe but cursed to keep searching. Where does this leave Urban Belly? Maybe I will go back. Check if the seasoning was off that night, or if I just picked the wrong set of dumplings for me. I think in the end it may be a matter of taste. Noodles and dumplings are my comfort foods. I can appreciate the work and thought that has gone into the food at Urban Belly, but the end result just isn't comforting.
1 — No offense to Mr. Samuelsson, but WHAT?! What is up with the celebrity burger? To be honest I was hoping that his Ethiopian/Swedish background would bring something new and interesting to the hamburger, but in the end it’s just his "take on all-american classics".
2 — Question – if a restaurant you think may be good has over-seasoned everything across the board, do you go back to give them a second chance
3053 N California Ave .
Chicago, IL 60618
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