Omnivorous: What's New | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: What's New 

Billy Dec's Asian venture, Cafe Iberico's pintxos bar, and Mexican-Mediterranean fusion in Back of the Yards

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During the preopening hype for Sunda, the new pan-Asian—excuse me, "New Asian"—preening ground from Billy Dec's Rockit Ranch Productions, the company issued a full color vacation album of the Party Baron's Big Adventure in Asia, featuring him nibbling scorpion sticks and chillaxin' on the Great Wall with best bud Ross Geller. Dec evidently fancies himself Bourdain in a ballcap, or perhaps something even more iconic: the restaurant's YouTube commercial frames him Christlike, backlit and with the whole world in his hands.

But is Rodelio Aglibot's food as robust as Dec's continent-size ego? The chef has put together a wide range of dishes both daring and ridiculous sounding, including sushi, noodles, dim sum, and grilled meats as well as big-ticket entrees, or "main flavors." Any menu with tripe and oxtails in its guts can't be all that superficial, can it?

Then again, the environment, created by designer Tony Chi—all black lacquer and communal tables—evokes the exoticized, an unlikely marriage of colonial opium den and an outdoor market. And the gimmicky names for some dishes—like No You Didn't... the Ultimate Handroll and Duck... What... Pork?—would seem to herald a half-serious reinvention of distinct regional cuisines.

Raw fish seemed fresh enough and stood on its own merits even when up against seemingly insurmountable overmanipulation. In the Wa-Machi, a specialty hamachi roll, the fish was surprisingly present and accounted for amid the triple attack of fresh wasabi, wasabi tobiko, and wasabi aioli. Same went for the escolar nigiri garnished with potato chips and mild truffle shavings (was it that Chinese fungi?). But some combinations were just plain wrongheaded—an amuse of noodles and ground beef, almost like Bolognese, was the antithesis of something intended to wake the palate. A so-called salad of soft "burnt" watermelon and jerkylike unagi bacon was a total textural mismatch, and the braised oxtail pot stickers in a "white wasabi cream" gave the lie to Dec's claim that there's no fusion in this joint. The impressive-looking crispy pata, a towering confit pork shank, could've been a nod to the deep-fried lechon kawali of Aglibot's Filipino heritage but for the side of foie gras "gravy," which tasted like liver boiled in sriracha.

Aglibot's ostentatiousness did finally pay off in a dessert, appropriately named Ridiculous: a squat dome of walnut-studded caramel covering a ball of vanilla ice cream, insulated by a gingery layer of carrot cake. —Mike Sula

Cafe Iberico started as a small tapas bar that felt authentically Spanish. Since then it's grown into a sprawling institution churning out massive quantities of food that's not as good as it once was to boisterous crowds who apparently don't notice. So I'd like to think Pintxos Tortilleria & Bar, the new second-floor addition devoted to Basque tapas, or pintxos, is an attempt to recapture the excitement and intimacy of the early days rather than just a way of handling Iberico's overflow weekend crowds—even though it's only open on Friday and Saturday nights.

The dimly lit bar comes closer than the dining area in terms of atmosphere, with counter seating and displays of whole tortillas españolas, pollo al ajillo casseroles, and pintxos combos. Salads and soups supplement these main menu options; you also can mix and match from a list of 30 a la carte pintxos, which come in sets of four with one of six sides.

Before anything else, order a tortilla española: it takes 20 minutes. Warm and well made, ours was the highlight of the meal, though next time I won't bother customizing it with bacon (one of 11 choices), which was very salty. The pan-roasted chicken drumsticks in olive oil with whole garlic cloves, cubed potatoes, piquillo peppers, green onions, and herbs were juicy and tasty, if not quite crispy enough. We tried eight pintxos, and only the succulent eel passed muster—little morsels of lamb, duck, and Cornish hen were overcooked and dry, as was the section of quail. We also got two scallop slices as thin and lifeless as quarters, three of forgettable butifarra sausage, and a trio of minuscule dates wrapped in ham; sides of leek sauce (more like creamed leeks) and soupy spinach and white beans were OK. The real rip-off was marmitako, a shallow bowl of salty "seafood combo soup" with not a speck of seafood despite the promise of three kinds of fish from a server who seemed to be on autopilot.

Among the mini desserts, priced at just $1.50: smooth crema catalana and coconut pudding the consistency of dried tar. Quaffable wines for $3.50 a tumbler ameliorated my disappointment somewhat, but the mediocre cortado (espresso with steamed milk) made me want to hop a plane to Madrid. —AnneSpiselman

Back in 2006, when Mundial Cocina Mestiza opened in Pilsen, I and many others made much ado over the improbability of fine dining thriving amid the taquerias of 18th Street. Well, that was nothing. Mundial's husband-and-wife team, Katie and Eusebio Garcia, have since split up, and while Mundial is being revamped by former partner Mario Cota and new chef Hector Marcial, Eusebio is floating a way more improbable proposition: fine dining fillips in Back of the Yards.

Amelia's Bar & Grill occupies a lonely industrial corner a few blocks south of the storied stockyards' gate, and nothing about the facade would indicate that anything more exotic than menudo lies within. The interior is nothing special either: all red pleather booths and dark wood. But Garcia, who worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook at Gordon before going on to open Red Light, Gioco, and, ultimately, his own restaurant, has brought much of Mundial's creative regional Mexican menu with him, and the dishes are all the more remarkable for their setting.

As at Mundial, classics like lush quesadillas—made with chewy handmade tortillas, mild Oaxacan cheese and dark, funky huitlacoche—or Garcia's signature grilled salmon with green papaya, mango, and avocado creme fraiche share the page with Mediterranean fusion creations like pan-seared, risotto-crusted halibut on a bed of tomato, anchovy, and fennel ragout. Lomo de puerco, an entree of grilled pork tenderloin, was terrific—thick medallions of pork painted with a tart, sweet tamarind glaze and seared till crisp. Plated with a handful of sauteed purslane, a smear of roasted quince, and a tangle of grilled onions, it could have come out of a far more pretentious kitchen.

A plate of oysters on the half shell topped with ceviche looked fantastic, and if the ceviche was disproportionately heavy on octopus, and the bivalves themselves a little blah, it was all still fresh, and punchy with lime and peppers. But while the strong, tricky flavors of that ambitious halibut dish were masterfully balanced, they were no match for the beyond-briny smell of the fish. And little things like the teensy shavings of avocado garnishing the ceviche led me to think that Garcia and the tiny, effusive staff are trying to do a whole lot with very little. When I walked in a few Fridays ago, the dining room was empty and they were about to close early. And, as the host pointed out while he tried to tune in the Sox game, they can't even afford cable yet. But with a little more traffic—and a little more money to stock the walk-in—they have a shot at re-creating something great. Amelia's is BYO for now, with a liquor license in the works. —Martha Bayne

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November 21
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