Omnivorous: Transformations | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Transformations 

Yunnanese wonders, Fauxgyptian flash, and thin-crust pizza from Lettuce

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Last month panic spread among devotees of Chinatown's Spring World when the Yunnanese restaurant abruptly closed its doors and its interior was ferociously gutted. But after the fastest remodeling in world history, James An has already reopened in his sparkling new room. In response to customer demand, he's also offering an expanded Yunnanese menu that focuses largely on dishes made with dried wild mushrooms said to have medicinal properties—the southern Chinese province is famous for such fungi. For now the menu remains untranslated, which An promises to rectify soon, but a few outstanding dishes have emerged from it already, most notably a mushroom hot pot. A murky, delicately spicy broth roiling with nearly a dozen species of 'shroom (including matsutake and Chinese black truffle) plus greens, herbs, tofu, and bits of lamb, it's a party of textures and flavors that continues to develop in the leftovers stage. A fabulous dish of seven mushrooms and chicken cooked in a tube of green bamboo is the hot pot's equal in complexity and nuance and is supposed to be good for a sore throat. Other new provincial specialties include a heaping plate of lamb riblets sprinkled with cumin and chile and a platter of similarly seasoned chicken chunks with chewy, pillowy rice cakes and red and green chiles. Both pack a smoky wallop.

All the old Yunnanese favorites remain, including "Across the Bridge," a dramatic hot pot of sliced meats and rice noodles, and the lamb stew and fish with sour-pickle casserole, which is a lot better than it sounds. There are also many well-executed Szechuan dishes, and as always, Spring World is a terrific value. The $3.95 lunch special (two dishes and soup) is still in place, and An has added an appetizer bar: for $4.99 you get a plate heaped with your choice of three cold dishes, from several kinds of pig's ear to spicy green beans to Szechuan chicken and more. —Mike Sula

Is it propitious to name your restaurant after a relatively insignificant ancient monarch with a cursed tomb? The restaurant formerly known as Queen Nefertiti is now called King Tut, after her probable son-in-law by incest, and the cavernous space has been completely remodeled in Vegas-style Fauxgyptian—you almost expect to see Steve Martin doing the funky Tut behind the performance-space mike. Nefertiti's claustrophobic drop ceiling has been ripped out—more airspace to allow the vanilla and fruit hookah smoke to dissipate—and the menu now offers a number of uncommon Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian dishes with a bit of French influence. Appetizers as rarefied as raw kibbeh and lamb tongue keep company with fried shrimp and cheese poppers. A selection of stews includes kidney beans and beef (fasolia) and okra (bamia), and there's an entire page of Westernized entrees like Sphinx Chicken, a riff on cordon bleu with bastirma, or air-dried beef, in place of the ham.

The menu's scope is impressive, but the kitchen's output seems institutionally executed compared to what some far less flashy Albany Park joints produce. The lavoshlike al-khubz al-shamsy ("bread of the sun") arrived cold and stretchy, lentil soup was bland and starchy, and the raw kibbeh, which should taste like it was alive that very day, was an artifact. Sheikh El Mahshi, eggplant stuffed with ground meat and raisins, was confrontationally salty, and the meat trio on a combination plate (shish kebab, lamb chop, shish tawook) was pretty much dehydrated. Some things showed promise: raheb eggplant salad was brightened with a splash of pomegranate syrup, and the tiny pieces of lamb tongue were balanced with a good dose of lemon. The place fills up during the later hours with stoic older men and college-age kids who seem to have little in common apart from the pipes attached to their lips and an apparent disinterest in eating. Lunchtime is as quiet as the king's crypt. —Mike Sula

Rich Melman is usually ahead of the curve, but Pizzeria via Stato, his rehab of the former enoteca, seems a little behind it—how many more thin-crust Italian-style pizza joints do we need? There are three already within seven blocks of Via Stato's River North compound. Years ago at Lawrence of Oregano (groan), Lettuce Entertain You spearheaded the wood-fired-oven trend; here Melman's disavowed it, and his crackery "taverna pizzas" suffer by comparison to the chewy pies at Coalfire and Spacca Napoli. The toppings we tried were hit-or-miss: while truffle oil did wonders for a white pizza with artichokes, the pepperoni, described on the menu as fennel salami, tasted of nothing so much as salt and grease. Perhaps some of the six other options (including margherita, house-made sausage, and potato) would have been more satisfying, but it's a bad sign when you have no interest in taking leftover pizza home, especially when your tab for two tops $70 (with wine and tip). I did like the crunch julienned celery gave to a Caesar salad, one of three salads on the concise menu, but a white anchovy or two would have been nice. And when I chose the sole red wine ($8) from an ultracondensed beverage list of house favorites, I didn't expect it to be about on par with Yellow Tail. (My companion scored better with a $7 Barbera.) Nonetheless, crowds of what looked to be tourists and shoppers packed the small space, which is stuck between its big sister, Osteria Via Stato, and the bright, barren lobby of the Embassy Suites. Locals should know better: Quartino, right across the street, offers a more varied menu at much better value, and the pizzas at newbies La Madia (in the old Jazz Showcase space) and A Mano (in Marina City) leave these in the dust. —KateSchmidt

For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

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