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Friday, October 5, 2012

Crash and burn: Bonsoiree

Posted By on 10.05.12 at 11:33 AM

Chrysanthemum and curd, cured yolk
I hate when this happens. Six days ago I dropped a significant portion of the Reader's eating budget on a 12-course meal at Bonsoiree, the wee Logan Square restaurant that achieved international acclaim under owner/opening chef Shin Thompson, and which had recently embarked on a second life with Top Cheftestant Beverly Kim and husband, Johnny Clark.

I'd been brooding over this ultimately problematic meal Wednesday when Eater reported that after only two months, the couple was quitting and the restaurant was shutting down on October 13 for unspecified reasons.

I didn't spend the money lightly. I had a strong hope that Kim and Clark were doing something ambitious with their Korean-tinged fine dining approach. I'm not talking about the more down-to-earth—but equally problematic—Koreanish work of Bill Kim at BellyQ (you can read about that in next week's paper). But 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. Modern interpretations of royal cuisine are pretty big in Korea, but as far I know no one's ever tried to pull off anything like it in Chicago. 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 hallyu, but overall failed at communicating much of that aesthetic or any kind of strong identity at all. Korean royal cuisine is supposed to be less spicy and salty than its common analogue, but this was something different entirely. There was a middle course, "bone soup," a riff on the milky-white bowl classic known as seollongtang, with a huge mouthful of tripe that hadn't been properly cleansed of its inherent barnyard character. A duck dish was underscored with a bitter puree of the satanic-looking, chestnutlike water caltrop. And there was a sweet red bean shaved-ice dessert known as pat bing su that was so crystallized it couldn't be eaten at all.

But even many of the not apparently Korean dishes showcased questionable combinations and executions. The typically delicate Japanese egg custard chawanmushi was saturated with an inexcusable funk from fishy XO sauce, fish roe, and aged Chinese ham. For a cheese course a cashew paste—the same anemic stuff vegans eat when they crave dairy—was paired with a single slice of beet.

I'm not saying there weren't high points: sommelier Matty Colston, a vet of Webster's Wine Bar and Telegraph, was terrific, pairing each course with some intriguing sips and stories—I'll never forget the stinky-sweet Normandy farmhouse cider he paired with a golf-ball-sized foie gras semifreddo coated in an inedible gravel of buckwheat groats. The dessert pictured above was about the best thing all night: a chrysanthemum pavlova, in which the meringue sandwiched a sugar-cured egg yolk that spurted out dramatically when you attacked it with your fork.

But as I said, tickets for Bonsoiree were prematurely pricey. Were Kim and Clark expecting to cash in on the fame garnered by the Michelin star that Thompson had won? I don't know if this lackluster meal could be explained by whatever internal strife might have been happening, but an essentially unproven restaurant has no business charging that much.

I'll still be interested to see Kim's next move, particularly if she sticks with a more overt Korean approach to fine dining. But I'll be much more cautious about spending the paper's money on it. In the meantime, if you want to dive into a great bowl of seolleongtang without breaking the bank, check out Han Bat.

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