In the middle of a residential area in an unremarkable strip mall on Chicago's near northwest side, Chicagoans Bill and Yvonne Kim, along with Bill's brother Mike, have just opened up urbanbelly, a casual 40-seat BYOB storefront restaurant focusing on the flavors of East and Southeast Asia as filtered through Bill's experiences cooking at fine restaurants throughout the US.
To call urbanbelly "Pan-Asian" and to stop there is to miss something very important: urbanbelly isn't a typical Pan-Asian restaurant. There's no attempt on the chef's part to replicate authentically the dishes of a large and diverse region of the world. Rather he takes ideas, methods, and preparations from Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines and combines them with his own unique culinary sensibility from years spent in, among other places, the kitchens at Charlie Trotter's and Susanna Foo, as well as at his own place in Doylestown, PA. It is a deeply personal style of cooking and cuisine.
The restaurant has four tables, each with seating for ten. This view, above, is exactly what you would see were you walking in the door on a late afternoon in the summer, as the windows face west. Before you sit, you order your lunch/snack/dinner at the counter at the back of the restaurant, take a number and then find a seat.
When the restaurant is busy, as it has been and inevitably will become more so as soon as the restaurant is discovered (it has only been open a week), Yvonne Kim breaks into crowd control and management, something I don't think she really had to deal with for the 6 years she worked front of the house at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in New York.
Chef Bill has a view of the restaurant from his window by the counter, where he expedites all the orders.
His wife Yvonne is running around the front of the house, greeting everyone and making sure guests have water and silverware and chopsticks and know how to order. She's got a lot of energy. She has to. She's working at least 12 hours a day 6 days a week.
What I'm going to tell you next is absurd and almost embarrassing: I've been to urbanbelly 5 times since they opened 5 days ago. Why? I've been craving the food Chef Bill makes all my life. I was raised on dim sum Sundays and Japanese cuisine and added Vietnamese, Thai and Korean cuisines to my diet when I was in college. Chef Bill's cuisine hits almost every comfort zone in my brain and belly and I feel deeply satisfied after a meal there. The menu is limited - right now there are (luckily) only 15 items on the menu and I've tried every single one. I've loved 13 of the 15 dishes I've tasted - that's an 86.7% hit rate, great by any measure. And I'll admit - the two dishes that I won't order again weren't failures, I just generally don't enjoy (to my palate) overly sweet sauces. I find they dominate the rest of the dish too much.
Between my last visit on Thursday with a gang of hungry eaters and my visit tonight (!!!) with Evan Debacle and the great camera, we managed to get a few photos of some of my favorite things to eat there.
And now...the menu in photos:
#11 Udon: Shrimp, Vietnamese Coriander and Sweet Chili Lime Broth $13
Did you ever see Tampopo? This is precisely the dish you want by your side when you take in a bit of Juzo Itami. Sure the broth isn't a ramen broth, but the pho spices are subtle, vibrant, and addictive.
#13 Somen: Mussels, Chinese Black Beans and Young Coconut Broth $11
I love shellfish. I love coconut. And I love this dish.
#18 Wrinkle Beans $4
They're beans, fried until wrinkly but not crunchy. Not too spicy. But flavored just right.The beans change depending on what is available.
#19 Chinese Eggplant with Thai Basil $5
This has been far and away one of the most universally loved dishes at urbanbelly. The eggplant is cooked perfectly - it is tender yet soft and melts in the mouth. The flavor is bright and acidic and slightly sweet and savory. The crunchy fried shallots add a nice counterpoint and the fresh herb brings out the fragrance of the dish.
#16 Seasonal kimchi $4
It changes from day to day. Today it was made from nappa cabbage, I think.
#2 Lamb and Brandy Dumplings $8
Photo by Evan
Steamed lamb dumplings with brandy and edamame. The filling was more subtle than other dumplings on the menu. They're good, but not quite as show stopping as the other dumplings.
#4 Duck and Pho Dumplings $8
Rich, crisp wontons filled with Duck spiced with star anise, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and a host of other things I can't even begin to guess are a crunchy, meaty treat that I've sampled 4 of the 5 times I've visited. Not one for fried dumplings, I find these delicious. But I love duck.
#9 Phat Rice $9
This is rice with the works. Short Rib, pork belly, pineapple, scallion, pea shoots and Thai basil have never tasted so good together. The first few times I tried it, it was either too salty or too limey. Today is was perfect. One of the best versions of fried rice I've tasted.
#5 Pork & Cilantro Dumplings $7
Do you know why these dumplings are so good? Because they come with a garnish of wrinkle beans, that's why. I have yet to taste these, but my pork-loving friends tell me that the cilantro is the perfect counterpoint to the pork.
I think the most common misconception of urbanbelly given its location and style of service and type of cuisine, will be that it is trying to be authentically Asian, whatever that means. I think to some that means 'cheap'. To others that means 'just like my momma made'. It isn't the case on either count. The food is gorgeous, made from great ingredients and carries a price that reflects that quality and effort. Perhaps Chef Bill and Yvonne need to call out their effort a little more to manage expectations a little better. Then again, if they don't, there's more for me and my friends.
urbanbelly / Urban Belly
3053 N California Ave