October 11, 2012
OK, Bill Kim, owner (with his wife, Yvonne Cadiz Kim) of Urban Belly, Belly Shack and now your latest, 6-week-old BellyQ: What's with all the bellies?
"Life starts from the belly, from the mother's womb," says Kim. "Everything starts from there, so it's a very caring and nurturing image I wanted to portray."
Kim is a former chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's and executive chef at Le Lan. He's rapidly becoming Chicago's version of David Chang, the superstar New York chef, making Korean-centric Asian food hip and accessible with a series of similarly named restaurants (Belly the common denominator with Kim; Momofuku with Chang). Belly Fire, Kim's bottled hot sauce (his take on sriracha sauce), just became available at Whole Foods. This is a guy on the rise.
Kim has yet to demand a king's ransom for his food, however, a circumstance for which all Chicagoans ought to be grateful. Urban Belly and Belly Shack are low-priced BYOs, of course, but even BellyQ, which Kim describes as his "all grown up" concept, keeps things affordable, despite the hip Market District location and full bar service. My last dinner, a table for four that indulged in a bit too much food, cocktails and a liter of wine, barely grazed the $200 mark.
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. "I like things to be consistent," he says, "no matter who's cooking at what station."
Kim's kimchee, however, is barely 12 hours old (he prefers fresh to fermented) and, consequently, crunchy and vibrant. It's the star ingredient (co-starring double-smoked bacon) atop one of his crepelike Asian pancakes, crisped like micro-thin pizzas in a wood-burning oven (inherited from one sixtyblue, the previous restaurant in this space).
This is a restaurant that revels in the unconventional without getting too weird about it. The menu, for example, is designed as a small, multipage book, the dishes becoming more complex as you flip pages. At first there are tiny bites: boneless pieces of Thai-style fried chicken in a zingy lemon grass sauce, or panko-crusted tofu cubes with tart marinated vegetables. Then salads, such as a novel take on panzanella that combines avocado, black beans, grape tomatoes and spinach with crispy rice puffs, or an eat-with-your-hands Caesar, or, more simply, chilled soba noodles topped with oil-poached shrimp and Chinese eggplant.
The three hot pots on the menu are 20 ounces of soul-nurturing delight, particularly the mixed-seafood hot pot with toasted cumin seeds and custard-smooth pieces of house-made tofu. I'd put a couple of the tea-smoked entrees — thick slices of duck breast with Chinese broccoli, lamb ribs drenched in hoisin-rosemary barbecue sauce, both served with addictive Chinese steamed buns — in the nurturing category as well.
BellyQ seats 200 and boasts eight tables equipped with Japanese infrared cooktops and ceiling-mounted ventilators, which allow for tabletop, smokeless grilling by a lucky few patrons. These first-come, first-served tables are in high demand, but, happily, grill menu items (there are four for now, including very nice short ribs topped with crisped garlic) are available from the kitchen. As a fan of professional cooking, I'm happy to leave that bit of participatory dining to others.
Desserts couldn't be simpler — double-rocks glasses filled with vanilla soft-serve and fruity ice — but they're light and delicious, fitting finales. Versions include huckleberry ice with huckleberries and lime-basil seed; passion fruit, topped with transparent cubes of young coconut jelly; and my favorite, citrus, a lemon-grapefruit creation covered with tapioca pearls.
The drink menu offers a good assortment of sake, an impressive list of bourbons and whiskeys, craft beers, cocktails and a few keg-stored wines (a growing practice among the eco-conscious) available by the glass, liter and half-liter.
Waiters, clad in leather aprons, excel at explaining dishes and making recommendations, and have personality to spare. But, so far, BellyQ's rhythms are such that the kitchen can produce a fried chicken appetizer faster than the bar can produce a cocktail, and that needs adjusting.
And while a menu of shared dishes and dipping sauces is bound to result in table debris, our detritus remained uncleared, except for a grand gesture just prior to dessert. I kept placing my chopsticks (you retain the same pair throughout the evening, unless, wink wink, you happen to drop them) across the rim of my water glass.
Yasmina Cadiz, Kim's sister-in-law, designed the interior (and those hand-size menus), giving it an open, raw and industrial look that hearkens to the building's early days as a pickle factory. It's attractive but extremely noisy, and the metal-framed, hardwood-seat chairs are uncomfortable.
Attached to the restaurant, at its southwestern corner, is BQ2GO, a carryout shop stocked with grab-and-go items but also offering build-your-own salads, rice paper wraps and both Vietnamese iced coffee and hibiscus iced tea on tap.
BellyQ is a consistently interesting restaurant, friendly, accommodating and affordable. I can't say I love the place yet, but I'm definitely smitten.
1400 W. Randolph St.; 312-563-1010; bellyqchicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Large plates $13-$23
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.