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Haute Asian, Three Ways

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Kevin Shikami's long anticipated namesake eatery KEVIN has finally opened, albeit quietly and without a liquor license, in the former Bangkok Cafe space on Hubbard near State. Shikami and brother Alan (his general manager) have redone the space along minimalist, almost sculptural lines: the wine racks over the bar are curved shapes of wood and brushed steel; recessed lights are covered in textured paper; one wall has abstract flowers etched into the plaster. Both the atmosphere and the food could be likened to that at ConFusion, where Shikami (who cut his teeth at Jimmy's Place) did a short stint. The upscale Asian fusion menu delivers wonderful flavors in complementary combinations--gravlax is marinated in gin and layered between crisp rice crackers with wasabi creme fraiche, crab salad, and a lively pickled ginger, all in a yuzu vinaigrette. Equally interesting and elegant is the seared sea scallop appetizer served with foie gras, watercress, and shredded potatoes in a mushroom vinaigrette. The pear salad came tossed in a delicate truffle oil vinaigrette with arugula, grilled exotic mushrooms, and a wedge of sheep's milk Camembert, served on a striking square glass plate. Close to half the entrees are fish or seafood: a slightly sweet lobster ragout came garnished with fresh papaya and ginger and served in a lobster broth redolent of lemongrass. A hint of Thailand comes through in the grilled salmon (glazed in a spicy mango sauce) with jasmine rice, red Thai curry, and a basil pineapple coulis. There's one chicken dish, and a seared breast of duck served moo shu style in a star anise sauce. Servers are chipper, efficient, and passionate about the menu. Kevin is at 9 W. Hubbard, 312-595-0055.

[River North Thai newcomer ERAWAN looks more like a shrine than a restaurant: carved teakwood canopies shelter linen-topped tables, 14-foot walls sport carved wood panels, wallpaper is detailed with gold leaf, and plates are custom-made porcelain jewels. Chef Art Lee, a nine-year veteran of Arun's, has teamed up with Penang owner Ken Lim and former Arun's wine steward Anorth Chitdamrong to bring high-end Thai cuisine to a more fine-dining-friendly part of town. Presentation is paramount in most dishes. The snowbird dumplings, for instance, are wrapped in rice paper gathered up in the shape of swans, with a black sesame seed for an eye and a small wedge of carrot for the beak. Even the garnish is elaborate: a bird painstakingly carved out of daikon, detailed down to the tiny feathers. Disappointingly, the ground herbed chicken filling doesn't live up to the promise of the package. The menu, which changes weekly, offers some classic Thai dishes: a richly flavored lamb in mussaman curry, featuring nicely cooked meat, and a fork-tender pomegranate-marinated quail, which unfortunately didn't pick up much of the fruit's sweet-and-sour flavor. A pomelo (grapefruit) salad is tossed with peanuts and coconut, but though the flavors and textures are nice, the fruit itself is somewhat dry. The few fusion dishes (including foie gras and escargot prepared in an Asian manner) look out of place; Lee would be better off sticking to a straight Thai menu. Overall the quality of the finished product doesn't justify the high prices, which run into the 20s and mid-30s for several entrees. The wine list is well-rounded, with a nice selection of Rieslings and some lighter reds to match the food, including a '98 Robert Sinskey Carneros pinot noir poured by the glass. Service is congenial and extremely polite. Erawan is at 729 N. Clark, 312-642-6888.

[Traditional Korean food is finally made accessible at JIN JU, new to the former Cousin's space in Andersonville. The formerly Mediterranean decor has gone hip--walls are crimson on the bottom and exposed brick on top, a huge mirror opens up the space, black fans spin from the wood-beamed ceiling, and chairs are stained dark brown to match the sleek wood floor. But in the kitchen Peter Mah and his brother-in-law (and chef) Yin Jin Hong have kept to the classics, westernizing only the menu, which lists as separate courses the appetizers, soups, salads, and entrees that would be served together in Korea. The plate-size haemul pajon (fried pancake) comes loaded with scallions, squid, and meaty mussels; it's cut into squares like a pizza and served with a soy dipping sauce. Mandoo (beef-filled dumplings) are served in the mini bamboo steamer they're cooked in, lined with vibrant cabbage leaves. An appetizer of daeji kalbi (barbecued pork spare-ribs) is marinated in the traditional ko chu jang (red pepper paste), then set off with a side of pickled onion triangles. Most familiar to the uninitiated will be the multiple versions of bi bim bop (rice topped with vegetables, beef, and a sunny-side-up egg): dol sut bi bim bop is served with sesame oil in a sizzling hot stone pot; san chae bi bim bop is a vegetarian version. The kalbi (marinated beef short ribs)--not cooked tabletop--come surrounded with freshly tossed greens in a soybean-paste sauce. Each dish is better than the next, so it pays to try several, which is easy to do without breaking your budget. All orders come with a small tin of steamed rice and an assortment of panchan, tiny plates of marinated vegetables like kimchi and shredded daikon. Even non-Korean staff are up to speed on the food and knowledgeable about wine pairings. Better yet, they'll mix up a "sojutini"--soju is the vodkalike Korean spirit made from sweet potatoes--in a variety of flavors. Jin Ju is at 5203 N. Clark, 773-334-6377.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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