Omnivorous: Tweaking Traditions | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Tweaking Traditions 

Hot pots for one, upscale soul food, and 13 Asian cuisines under one roof

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If, as some claim, Genghis Khan truly invented the hot pot as a practical way to feed his screaming hordes, he couldn't possibly have envisioned the day that people would sit on chairs and not share. Do you hate it when your pals dunk clams into your carefully balanced beef broth? Grossed out by your baby brother's baby corn bobbing around in the soup? Well, you're in luck: Shabu House individualizes this traditionally communal eating experience. Inside a brightly lit strip-mall storefront—about as far as you can get from a yurt on a windswept steppe—a long, oval open-ended bar is set with sunken aluminum pots, each with its own adjustable heating element, slotted spoon, and mesh strainer. The protocol and lore of the hot pot is ardently described on the menu, which is dense with a confusing number of options, but the servers are extraordinarily attentive—worried for you, even—if you don't happen to be Asian. To get you started, they arrive with a pitcher of chicken or seaweed stock and an optional saucer of minced kimchi. The stock goes into the pot, and from there the method is simple: prime your roiling broth with chile paste or salt, add veggies and starch, swish the thin slices of prime or marbled beef or seafood in the broth, dip it in one of four sauces, and eat. Near the end, when the broth has absorbed the essence of all that's bathed in it, you can throw in a portion of rice for "risotto." The attention to detail here is particularly appealing, given the affordability of the experience—noodles and terrifically plump, fresh dumplings are house-made, plates of protein and plants arrive artfully stacked and arranged, a tiny slice of citrus floats in each saucer of apple ponzu sauce. But there's a lot of work involved in this kind of eating—and at this place you can't just abdicate the development of your hot pot to another, more energetic diner. The toil might be better mitigated if BYOB was permitted, but no dice, soldier. Come prepared to cook. —Mike Sula

At the time of the 2000 census, fewer than 1 percent of Clarendon Hills residents were African-American. So things must have radically changed over the last eight years for the affluent, sleepy DuPage County hamlet to get its very own soul food restaurant, appropriately enough called Soul. Well, probably not—and as you might guess, this large, brashly appointed suburban peculiarity (the decorator might have shot a flock of macaws out of a jet turbine) is more "soul food" than soul food. One of the major players behind it is none other than Bill Kim (with Howard Davis, one of his partners in Le Lan), whose smashingly popular noodle bar, Urban Belly, does a similar thing with a similarly populist food. Both have taken traditionally simple, inexpensive cuisines and amped up the execution—with a corresponding increase in price. Kim's lieutenant in this venture is executive chef Karen Nicolas, formerly of the private Metropolitan Club and NYC's Gramercy Tavern, who oversees the attractive menu of high-end takes on folkloric foodways. She tends to balance richly and sweetly flavored proteins and whole grains with hearty, bitter greens—and I'm a sucker for that. I'm talking a robustly piggy grilled Duroc pork chop with a lode of internal fat (but still a bit dry), served with bewitchingly fragrant baby mustard greens and braised faro over roasted fig sauce. Or glazed duck breast with pureed yams in foie gras sauce and sauteed rapini. It's everywhere—shrimp and chicory, scallops and radicchio, codfish hush puppies and frisee. It's not that there are no surprises—a pureed apple-parsnip soup I expected to be a thick, heavy harbinger of cooler weather was instead a bowl of sunshine, tart and sweet with a touch of grassy herbaceousness from pickled celery. Not everything I ate at Soul knocked my boots off—I have a friend who calls this sort of place "high-end boring" and, more contemporarily, "lipstick on a pig." But Clarendon Hills could do a whole lot worse. —Mike Sula

A project of Sticky Rice Thai co-owner Komane Purananda, Lincoln Park's Miss Asia offers a pageant of cuisines—13 in all—from across the continent. About half the enormous menu is Thai, and though it doesn't include the northern Thai specialties Sticky Rice is known for, you will find exotica like stuffed bitter melon soup among the standard fried rice, curry, and noodle dishes. We especially liked the salads, particularly the vivid somtum shrimp yum: shredded papaya, fresh and dried shrimp, tomato, green beans, and peanuts with a mildly spicy lime dressing. But who wants Thai (or Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, or Indian, for that matter) when you can try Cambodian, Mongolian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Laotian, Filipino, or Malaysian/Singaporean? Granted, there are fewer offerings under these categories, and they tend to be basics, toned down for American tastes—mutton, for example, is a staple of Mongolian cuisine, but here you'll find beef dumplings and lamb hot pot instead of the stewed innards of an aged sheep. In the Cambodian category are more salads—pamelo, lotus root, banana blossom, all with chicken—and a tamarind curry of beef, pumpkin, and pineapple, an interesting combination of tastes and textures. And on the list goes, from Indonesian gado gado (tofu, veggies, and eggs with peanut sauce) to Nepalese goat curry to Filipino menudo, Malaysian laksa (spicy noodle soup), and Laotian tam buk hung (a traditional dinner of papaya salad, dried beef, and sticky rice). There are also desserts, featuring custard, sticky rice, and coconut, and fresh juices including palm and coconut. Go with a large party to take advantage of as many options as possible—most items are under $10, and the BYOB policy is gravy. A bonus for those in the area: Miss Asia delivers, and you could order in nightly for months without repeating yourself. —Kate Schmidt

Care to comment? Find these reviews at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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