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Restaurant Fri Jan 11 2013
A friend and I planned a visit to Oiistar for a Wednesday night dinner. I met up with him at the door. "I'm not feeling it," he said immediately. "It's like a club in there. Too noisy." I glanced through the window to assess the interior: full, but not packed. Atmospheric, minimalist decor with lots of woody accents. Classic cartoons projected onto a far wall. The word "trendy" came, almost instantaneously, to mind.
But this being Wicker Park, and Oiistar being one of the newest additions to a specific trend set -- fusion cusine gastropubs -- I decided that my friend's fear was just symptomatic.
At the very least, worth a closer investigation. Inside, we were quickly seated and attended to by a young, bubbly server who couldn't help but profess his enthusiasm for the menu items. "The French Kimchi soup! It's so good!" Etc.
It didn't take us long to decide on ordering -- especially since I'm one of those annoying people who decides what I'll be eating long before arriving at the restaurant. Between us, we had a bowl of Musclemen ramen, an order of pork belly buns, portobello mushroom buns, mung bean caprese salad, and the highly praised French kimchi soup. All of them arrived relatively quickly, and (where appropriate) streaming hot.
The steamed buns (two per order) were exactly how I had expected (and voraciously hoped) they would be. It's all about the actual bread for me -- pillowy and melt-in-your-mouth. The mushrooms were cooked perfectly, retaining their meaty texture while also juicy and tender. The salad was OK -- interesting in concept and design, but a little lacking in flavor after the first few enthusiastic bites.
I could barely take my eyes of the French kimchi soup -- adorably presented in a traditional ramekin nestled into a newspaper-lined basket. A rich, creamy red in color, it hit addictive spicy notes that could be subdued by hunks of over-the-top garlic bread that I couldn't stop eating. Proof that it's always worth asking your server their favorite menu item is, "I try to get some of this to take home every night," ours told us.
The main event, the Musclemen ramen, was a bit of a knockout. The both was flavorful without being oily, studded with fire-engine-red peppers, and the mussels were large and plentiful. The noodles tasted fresh and were delightful for slurping. It was so, so filling. I kept coming back to it, even after the multiple time I laid down my spoon in feigned surrender.
On the whole, Oiistar is definitely worth a visit -- the food stands up for itself. However, this is a place that feels a little more like "weekend night out on the town" than "neighborhood eatery." I was diggin' the atmosphere; my friend never quite adjusted. But, as anyone who really knows me knows, the way through my heart is through my stomach -- sometimes, in spite of the surroundings.
Oiistar is located at 1385 N. Milwaukee Ave.