New Asian places on Liberty
by M.B. Lewis / Lee Lawrence
From the August, 2014 issue
When faced with a restaurant that facilitates hands-on cooking and saucing at the table, some folks will grumble about paying good money to eat out then having to do the work themselves. But serious preparation and craft are invested in the various marinades and beautifully sliced meat platters that Tomukun Korean BBQ offers for cooking at large-pizza-sized gas grills smack in the middle of most of its tables. Go with friends or family to get in touch with a communal "eating as an event" vibe. And although the option to grill your own is front and center, there's also a vast variety of other Korean-inspired items they'll be glad to cook for you, as well as a full bar.
"No Korean meal is complete without banchan at the table!" proclaims the menu. Banchan means complementary small side salads of the day, like the four little ramekins that arrived at our table shortly after we did. There were two kinds of wonderful house-made kimchi (fresh cucumber and traditional wilted cabbage), potatoes in a honeyed sauce, and a heaping pile of lightly dressed crisp slivers of radish. Our chopsticks clicked away at them all as we awaited delivery of the seafood pancake appetizer we had ordered and looked around the bright big-windowed room (with a fantastical pastel mural by local chalk artist David Zinn in the back). Tomukun's souffle-like pancake is crisp-edged and not as oily as I've had in New York's Koreatown. Plentiful bite-size pieces of fresh shrimp, octopus, and squid hide among scallions (mussels and scallops are also listed in the menu, but we couldn't find them in our order). It's a pleasing light precursor for a grill-your-own dinner that goes whole hog (and/or chicken and cattle) into meat.
For the BBQ main event, you order either a pound-size serving of a specific meat or a pricier combo platter. Each person gets four tiny ramekins of sauces; my favorites were miso and salty/garlicky sesame oil. You cook your
portion as little or much as you want (although they suggest at least medium well for beef and well done for chicken and pork). Best of all, you get to inhale the alluring aroma of browning high-quality meat right up until you plop still-sizzling chunks into the condiment sauces--or eliminate the dipping detour and go straight from grill to mouth.
We liked all of the marinated meats we tried. The sweet and spicy bulgogi pork browned seductively to a caramel crisp. Thin slices of pink brisket had purist simplicity, and marinated rib eye provided a citrus zing. The only thing we failed to cook delectably was the pork belly, which had arrived on the platter looking like an oversized thick slice of bacon. It would take some practice to prepare it more like the delicate stir-fry and other preparations made popular at Tomukun Noodle Bar next door instead of the rubbery slab we produced.
When you feel like you're hitting meat overload, you can grill some of the mushrooms, onions, asparagus, and squash slices that come on the platter. Or take a break with the lightly dressed tossed salad that appears mid-meal at the table.
The waitstaff at Tomukun are ideally there to brief newcomers on everything from ordering to grilling, get you started, and then discreetly disappear when you are ready to fly solo. It wasn't quite that seamless for our party of four. Sometimes staff seemed to hover, yet there was a moment when no one was nearby when we had a "burning" question. One server we hadn't seen previously swooped in suddenly well into the meal to change the grill grate, it apparently having reached a critical degree of being caked with burning marinade and meat bits. The dining experience probably gets smoother with subsequent visits once you know the drill.
Some hovering was also apparent at lunch, however, when grilling isn't even on the menu. The lunch features many of the same seaweed rice wraps, stews, and rice dishes available at dinner, including cold buckwheat noodles to have fun cutting with your own food scissors. There's also a great-value $5 starter of a steamed egg with sesame oil that cooks from runny to fluffy in its hot stone bowl in front of your eyes.
Perhaps a grill cover would help aesthetics at the lunch table and for those not grilling at dinner. It would keep slippery pieces of banchan vegetables from accidentally falling below the grate and into the very dark and deep-looking grill well (fortunately no servers were watching when that happened, because it may have violated one of the five safety tips, depending on the interpretation of what constitutes "sticking objects into the grill").
These are quibbles for an ambitious venture that has been open for business for only a few months. Thomas Yon, the creative young proprietor of both Tomukuns (they are connected by a walkway in front) has been very successful with the original noodle shop, and that seems to bode well for the BBQ's future.
Sure, some details still need figuring out in this dramatic event-eating approach--for servers as well as uninitiated customers. But the BBQ clearly echoes trademarks of Tomukun's success, like fresh good-quality ingredients and a Millennial-generation approach to food inspired by Korean traditions but not absolutely bound by them. If you can handle rolling up your sleeves to ensure the least possible time and distance between your meat's heat source and its delivery the way you want it, Tomukun Korean BBQ could be your version of "eliminate the middleman" heaven.
Tomukun Korean BBQ
505 E. Liberty (Ste. 100)
Tues.-Sun. noon-3 and 5-10 p.m. (last seating at 9 p.m.) Closed Mon.
Appetizers $5-$12, lunch $10-$18, dinner $10-$25 (more for combo platters).
Years ago--a phrase I seem to utter more and more frequently--my husband and I enjoyed a couple of dinners at Tribute, the famed Farmington Hills restaurant, early in its life, when Takashi Yagihashi manned the kitchen. "Enjoyed" is mild praise for those evenings; we were surprised by and delighted in our dinners. Though we haven't made it to any of Yagihashi's current Chicago restaurants, we were thrilled to see him coming back to Michigan, even in casual form, with a second outpost of his Slurping Turtle. It's a neighbor to the new Knight's Downtown Steakhouse in the old Borders store on Liberty.
In the past ten years communal dining tables have become commonplace in Chicago's trendy restaurants, but whenever I'd visit one of them, I'd shake my head and moan that the concept would never work at home; Ann Arborites were too enamored with their booths. The new Slurping Turtle, though, appears to be proving me wrong--or at least suggesting that love can evolve. Two long, high-top tables dominate the center of the bright, sleekly white room, with a few booths and individual tables along one side and a bar along the other; the closeness of the seats at the communal tables doesn't appear to have shortened the lines waiting to fill them. Neighbors seem to intuit and respect the vibes emanating from the strangers next to them--engaging in menu chatter with receptive new friends or directing eyes and conversation rigidly forward across the tables to their companions. It all seems a bit of a sociological experiment, fun or annoying depending on one's mood, but always loud when the place is full.
But let's talk menu. At Slurping Turtle, Yagihashi is highlighting casual, simple Asian food, the sort one can eat frequently and inexpensively. Small plates dominate, augmented with sushi (which we didn't try) and noodle and rice bowls. But simple here can be deceptive, because the menu is dotted with words needing definition for many of us--chashu, or Japanese barbecued pork belly; ohba leaf, or shiso basil herb; mochi, or Japanese rice cake. And how often do any of us make taco shells from taro root or roll out homemade ramen noodles or fry chicken in duck fat? Moreover, each small plate comes with a little garnish as thoughtfully considered as the main element--the shredded romaine dressed with a spritely ginger vinaigrette is as delightful as the cubed hamachi fish filling those fragile tacos.
The menu also includes a long list of sakes, helpfully separated into categories ranging from "clean and smooth" to "bold/sophisticated." In the spirit of "when in Rome," we selected a couple of options, but I'm afraid that sake's subtleties were lost on us. Though we could certainly discern the differences between the "clean" and the "bold" samples we tried, we found the mildly herby, vermouth-like qualities of each pleasant but not inspiring. Perhaps greater exposure will eventually awaken our palates to sake's pleasures.
We found our exposure to the food much more rewarding. At our first visit, we ordered in rounds. Besides the aforementioned tacos, filled with velvety cubes of fish, micro greens, and a salty dollop of orange tobiko (flying fish roe), we also began with tuna tataki, barely seared fish sliced and sprinkled with wispy but pungent threads of dried chili and ohba. The duck fat-fried chicken--crispy exterior, juicy interior, the whole deeply imbued with flavor--produced a blissful trance in one friend as he slowly, contemplatively, finished his piece. Again, the lightly dressed greens garnishing the dishes, different on each plate, were as delicious as the centerpieces.
Though suggesting autumn rather than spring, browned brussels sprouts were a pleasant start to our next grouping. Plates of bao--the soft, sweet, steamed folded buns filled with a choice of roasted chicken, crispy pork belly, or shrimp tempura--followed. The only one that thrilled us was the glazed pork, the salty, fatty meat scented with star anise and perfectly complemented by crunchy pickles and the pillowy bread.
Although we probably could have stopped there, we ordered a third round, dipping into the entrees. Of the noodle bowls, the waiter recommended tonkotsu, thin ramen noodles in a pork broth with chashu, bok choy, wood-ear mushrooms, and pickled mustard greens. We had no complaints about this savory soup, and the homemade noodles alone were wonderful. We also tried chahan, Japanese fried rice made from a superlative short-grain brown rice and garnished with a bit of everything; while it didn't necessarily offer inspired flavors, it certainly satisfied in a homey, comforting way.
Desserts that night, however, didn't satisfy. Macaroons were either strange raspberry-wasabi tasted like honey mustard) or overly sweet (sea caramel). The green tea custard inside our cream puff looked like a sickly pea puree and had the gritty texture of too much cornstarch. The coconut custard version that ended our second visit was an improvement, but the Iron Chef Egg Shooter--a raw quail egg in a shot glass of coconut and condensed milks scented with mint--was rather anticlimatic, neither outrageous nor sublime.
Actually, much of that second dinner hit fewer high notes than our first one had. The ceviche, a mix of seafood in a citrusy yuzu dressing, was fine but not outstanding. Soy-marinated salmon was a dish of cured slices, but even the anchovy aioli didn't spark much interest, and the flour tortilla beneath was gratuitous. Kimpira crouquette, fritters of mashed root vegetables, including gobo or burdock, was sweet, gluey, and unappetizing. Saikyo eggplant, miso-marinated slices fried and topped with mozzarella, was just plain weird--overly sweet, again tasting oddly of honey mustard, and getting no help from the melted cheese; we didn't even recognize the eggplant. (But I took a lesson from the dish--not to trust a waitress who recommends a dish highlighting an ingredient she normally doesn't like; it's probably because it doesn't offer any hint of the offending component.) The evening's small plate hit was the butakauni, succulent strips of pork belly and a charred shiso pepper in a dark, rich, intense broth--fabulous.
As for entrees, curry yaki udon resembled Chinese Singapore noodles, stir-fried with curry powder and bits of protein and vegetables. My companions found the dish boring, but I enjoyed it as I had the chahan--another homey, satisfying meal. The tan tan men ramen noodle bowl, a spicy--but not overly so--mix of aromatic pork broth, braised pork, bok choy, and a pork meatball we swore tasted like lamb, produced the most pleased murmurs of the evening.
Overall, Slurping Turtle surprised me. Though I wasn't foolish enough to expect Tribute food at noodle bar prices, I was expecting to encounter more tantalizing flavors, more electrifying combinations, or even just more utterly delicious dishes than I did. But that's not to say the place doesn't have its appeal, and you'll likely find us, on the nights pork and noodles and spicy greens are calling us, at Slurping Turtle's long table, looking over at our neighbors' places to see what's good to eat.
608 E. Liberty
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m. & Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Already numbingly hungry, I wasn't concerned about ruining my appetite. I was worried I wouldn't get the dish of shaved snow home before it melted. I looked over at the other car seat where the bowl nestled in a bag alongside hot soup and a warm sub, wondering if I should eat dessert before lunch.
Looking for a quick takeout lunch for my husband and me, I had stopped at Ginger Deli, a cunningly styled window, awning, and outdoor seating jutting from the side of the old stucco house at the corner of Division and Liberty. Ginger Deli offers Vietnamese fast food--pho (rice noodle soup), banh mi (French-influenced baguette sandwiches), summer rolls, and "snowmazing"--cottony folds of extruded, flavored ice milk. My selection featured mango flavor, drizzled with condensed milk and sprinkled with coconut and banana slices.
Actually, the fluffy ice was pretty sturdy stuff; it probably would have survived the warm drive home intact, but I didn't give it a chance, instead scooping spoonfuls between shifting gears. And while it may have lacked the smooth, deep, intense flavor and texture of ice cream or gelato, the light, refreshing, grainy dessert grew on me. Certainly it didn't over-satiate; I still polished off my half of lunch once I got it home and spread out on the table. My husband, though, went without dessert.
Fortunately, both of us enjoyed lunch. Of the fresh summer rolls, we preferred the traditional one with pork and shrimp, though the inspired additions of mango and pickled ginger helped jazz up the otherwise bland vegetarian option. The dipping sauces--I suggest spicy peanut over the regular peanut or plum--also provided a flavor boost.
The banh mi with pancetta, garnished with pate, pickled grated carrot and daikon, and fresh cilantro was tasty; however, I would have preferred thicker pickled vegetables--ones with real texture and crunch--and a crustier baguette. (Tastes in bread are highly personal, and others may find the restaurant's bread, made by owner Te Phan's uncle, My Phan, commendable just as it is.) Meat more deeply marinated and more generously heaped would have also made the sandwich more satisfying. This seemed particularly true for the beef option we tried at another lunch.
Ginger Deli's packaging is as carefully considered as its food. The takeout pho comes in a wonderfully secure two-part carryall designed by Te Phan, by training an industrial designer. A container of hot broth rests atop a larger serving bowl of rice noodles and garnishes, both fitted into a cardboard holster, along with a nested fork and spoon. This clever packaging maintains the freshness of the noodles and garnishes and, once you pour the broth over the noodles, provides a built-in dish and eating utensils. And, it's all biodegradable and recyclable.
Inside that great parcel, the vegetarian pho's broth lacked any real depth of flavor; it was lightly sweet, garnished with thin rounds of a mysterious non-meat product and dense mushrooms. The beef version was more savory, with a pronounced star anise accent, but the paper-thin slices of beef were dry and overcooked. Both soups came with a lime wedge, scallions, cilantro, and chili and hoisin sauces to add spark, but without the customary fresh bean sprouts and chili slices for crunch--perhaps an oversight that day. Prices for everything were quite reasonable.
Although Ginger Deli opened at the end of April, as of mid-July it still wasn't serving the crispy spring rolls and bao promised on its website's menu. Buns and technique still need to be perfected, I was told. I look forward to trying both; the restaurant's food is clearly fresh, thoughtfully made, and quick. If it lacks a bit of "oomph", it still makes for a quality lunch, and the deli is a bright addition to Liberty St.
My meals at Slurping Turtle and Ginger Deli made me want to go back to San Francisco and the Vietnamese storefront where I bought a scrumptious banh mi, fully loaded, for $3.25. More practically, I revisited San Street and the cart's versions of banh mi and bao. At Mark's Carts, I found the sandwich made on a crackly Zingerman's Bakehouse roll, innards removed to allow for more filling. The pickled vegetables had heft, and the greens and meat, imbued with its marinade, were piled high. "We've heard we're not authentic--no pate like Ginger's" groused the fellow making my sandwich, and the price was higher, but San Street's rendition was downright scrumptious.
And so it was in the bao contest between Slurping Turtle and San Street, with the cart, in this case, finishing ahead of the turtle--the buns equally tasty but San Street pulling ahead with more delectable, plentiful, and interesting fillings. Sometimes plain delicious is all that matters.
303 S. Division
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. noon-3 p.m.
[Originally published in August, 2014.]
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