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

Omnivorous: What's New 

The dumplings beat the noodles at Urban Belly; why Duchamp would disapprove of Duchamp; and where to take your baby (as in infant) for a Belgian in West Town

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Often with domestic attempts to popularize or synthesize Asian cuisines, one taste predominates: sweetness. To his credit, Bill Kim doesn't try to lure babies with candy at his upscale neighborhood noodle joint Urban Belly. Instead he offers an array of pan-Asian-inspired dumplings and rice and noodle bowls with bold but occasionally wearying flavors. It's a quick-serve, sometimes frenzied communal setting that by early indications is a winning business model. The dumplings alone could carry it; offered in five distinctive varieties, they're tasty across the board. I particularly liked the ones stuffed with lamb and brandy, fragrant pork and cilantro, and duck with pho spices. But my excitement was quickly dampened by the other menu categories, particularly the greasy rice bowls—long-grain rice topped with a few small slabs of short rib, or tossed with pork belly and pineapple, pea shoots and basil, or a combination of all of the above. The noodles have a tendency to taste strikingly delicious in the first few slurps, but gradually exhaust the palate the closer you get to the bottom of the bowl. This is especially true of the saltier varieties—the rice cakes in Korean chile broth with katsu-style chicken breast, for instance, or the stir-fried egg noodles, which while nicely knotted and crispy were bathed in a broth not all that different. The gluey soba with bay scallops in blue crab broth was an unmitigated disaster, but I did feel favorably toward the ramen, a chewy tangle with shiitake and thick slabs of pork belly. There's a lot to like in these bowls—bonito flakes, Kim's springy house-made fish cakes, the bitter Chinese broccoli that offsets the sweet chile-lime broth in the udon, the one entry that could be considered cloying. But they rarely add up to the sum of their parts. For the most illustrative indicator of Urban Belly's relative value, look to the sides—the eggplant with Thai basil is terrific, as is Kim's pungent house-made kimchi. But nearly every other restaurant in town that serves kimchi serves it for free, as much as you want—it's inexpensive and easy to make. Kim's is good, but it's not $4-for-a-tiny-saucerful good. —Mike Sula

"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," declared Marcel Duchamp. So he'd have to scoff at Michael Taus, whose chummy Bucktown spot duchamp is aesthetically delectable in a couple ways. Unlike the chef's pricier Zealous, most main courses here run between $15 and $20, and for that kind of money they're a lot more satisfying than might be expected. We approached a crispy fried skate wing "fish-and-chips" with tartar sauce with some unease, but the dense pieces of fish held up well to the oil under the bread-crumb batter (though the garlic spuds on the side didn't). The awkwardly named "Return to Thailand Bouillabaisse" (enough with the quote marks already) was simply a luxuriant coconut curry with mussels, shrimp, and a gorgeous piece of sea bass. The least successful of the large plates we tried was a hunk of braised pork shoulder, luscious and tender but so big it rejected the penetration of the puttanesca that sauced it. Small plates were a little more expensive, relatively speaking, but mostly gratifying: a white pizza with sweet lobster offset by some beefy trumpet mushrooms; an off-menu tempura rock shrimp toast afloat in a thick, rich lobster bisque; smoked salmon tartare blinis like little turbans ornamented with dollops of creme fraiche; duck rillettes set atop swabs of cauliflower puree. Utilitarian desserts—creme brulee, lemon tart—were outclassed by a duo of mini chocolate cupcakes and chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. There are a few questionable decorative choices—clear Plexiglas dining room chairs and bar stools that resemble torture devices might've made the ol' Dadaist happy—but the broad communal tables don't seem to foster a rushed, chaotic environment (see Avec, Urban Belly), and on the outdoor patio everything comes together in a comfortable, enjoyable spot the neighborhood's lucky to have. —Mike Sula

Wondering where the older siblings of the kids at the Continental—the ones with jobs and starter homes—head when they need to cut loose? Try the Old Oak Tap, a new barstaurant from the owners of the Continental and Darkroom. On a recent Friday the 1,500-square-foot front patio was jammed, and every third patron seemed to be bouncing a baby between sips of Saison DuPont. The high-ceilinged interior has been widely compared to a ski lodge, but the feel is more goth-modern, wrought-iron chandeliers in tenuous balance with the low, clean lines of the dark oak tables and pale green banquettes. The menu, created with consulting chef John Manion (Mas), is full of spiffed-up bar standards like sweet-and-spicy sriracha wings, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and sandwiches stuffed with tilapia or five-spice pork belly. And I mean stuffed: the lump crabmeat club was an ungainly mound of crab salad with four inches of fresh ciabatta on either side and finished with chunks of bacon and avocado. It was tasty—and the accompanying fries were outstanding—but presented a serious structural challenge. Deep-fried rock shrimp glazed with chipotle aioli and a rib eye salad with romaine and avocado proved more navigable, but underneath the spicy mayo the shrimp seemed oddly flavorless. The craft beer list showcases a lot of predictable crowd-pleasers—Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Three Floyd's Alpha King, Two Brothers Cane and Ebel—but also a couple intriguing curveballs like the Magic Hat #9 Pale Ale, a light, fruity, strangely pleasant brew I'd never tried before and liked a lot by the fourth sip. Like the beer list, Old Oak overall follows a well-known formula, but if the formula works, why mess with it? —Martha Bayne

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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