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Review Fri Sep 05 2014
If you jump, it's a good thing to have a parachute, which is a fitting name for one of Chicago's newest restaurant openings of the same moniker, fitting because the story leading up to it isn't without a bit of turbulence.
Parachute is the first ground-up project from husband-and-wife team Beverly Kim and John Clark, and the second venture for the couple as independent proprietors following in the footsteps of Bonsoiree, the Logan Square spot that they took over (and abruptly closed) after Kim's departure from Aria. Coming off a popular reality television show without a restaurant deal (Top Chef fans will recall that Kim was only a few episodes away from winning the show's ninth season) and then taking over a Michelin-starred restaurant can't be an easy follow-up. So, if there were a story of a restaurant that symbolized the American way of not giving up on dreams, Parachute might be a good example, as they opened earlier this summer with the help of bank and family loans, as well as a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $20,000.
Helping make this happen was finding a space that already had a kitchen; a former Mexican bakery and taqueria on the corner of Troy and Elston caught their eye. Architect Charlie Vinz was brought in to transform the space into a 40-seat neighborhood restaurant, which he did by balancing contemporary with casual, and placing a family-style banquet table (almost reminiscent of a Japanese steakhouse) in the center of the room. A handful of two tops offer a different experience for the remainder of available seating, while touches of Asian kitsch placed throughout -- a vase at the end of the bar, vintage bottles and figurines on the bathroom shelf -- also remind you that the concept is rooted in a whimsical flair.
Parachute's menu, divided between starters and entrees with dishes ranging in a moderate price range (average starters are $8, an entree, $21) skews more towards the infusion side than it does strictly Korean, speaking perhaps to a collaboration of two point of views in the kitchen.
For starters, the sesame leaves -- lightly fried and served with a bourbon barrel dipping sauce -- are an unique and tasty introduction to the menu. If you could define what Korean-American fusion could be, this loose take on a potato chip might be a good start. House-made pickles, especially kimchi, are an expected dish, and I liked what they are doing by offering a trio; get it for the watermelon radish while it's still in season. The baked potato bing bread stuffed with bacon and scallion served with a sour cream butter also wins, reminiscent of a denser savory monkey bread, another good case of East meets West. Stick with the half-order to save room for the rest of the menu.
If you're working your way through the menu and want something lighter and more farm-to-table, I recommend one of the most interesting things I've come upon recently -- the chameh melon salad with manzanilla olives, yellow cucumber, and toasted buckwheat. It arrived with torn mustard greens blanketing the rest of the ingredients, which I didn't fully understand as a plating choice, but the ingredient combination - pickles, olives, melon, greens and buckwheat -- is bold and it surprisingly works, a yin-yang of sweet, salty and bitter. I would never imagine putting this combination of ingredients on a plate together, and it stands out as one of my most memorable dishes.
Those who venture out to eat Korean because of the kick will do good to order the potato croquettes served with a spicy plum dipping sauce, as well as the hand-torn noodles that come with a rich, cumin-heavy lamb sofrito with a surprise dose of Sichuan peppercorn, a spice noted for its numbing properties. A final dip into the bountiful and spicy flavors expected from Korean food is the hot pot, Parachute's paella of sorts -- but instead of a big pan of savory rice and seafood, you get the largest bowl of brothy seafood you'll likely find in Chicago; more on that later.
Opposite of that heat and flavor on the other side of flavor interpretation is the squash and shiitake mandu, two dumplings traditional to Korean food that look like a blintz, stuffed with a nutty mushroom filling and presented over a labneh yogurt topped with ribbons of squash. The earthiness of the dish makes you feel like ordering a cup of green tea and looking for a gurgling water fountain behind you while you practice your inner yogi. This dish was good and had technique, but it was missing something -- a pop, a spice, salt. Next to the spicier dishes on the menu, the mandu may offer a balance and might not be a bad pairing with a bolder starter followed by the hot pot; however, by both itself and my menu selection that night, it fell into the category of average.
Another dish that didn't really hit the mark for me were the salt and pepper pork ribs with a yuzu kosho and honey glaze topped with shiso leaves. On paper, this serves to stand out as one of the most delicious menu items; sous vide ribs with a sweet and spicy glaze? Sign me up for two. But they fall short of the gloriously sticky sweet and salty experience I had hoped for, even on a subsequent try. The sous vide doesn't do what it should do for tenderness, and the combination of yuzu kosho and honey seems to become an afterthought to the finishing salt and pepper. The shiso leaves add a numbing, tobacco effect but you are not really sure when and how you're supposed to eat them, and you wonder what taste on the plate is supposed to be leading the dish when the salt is so dominant.
The kampachi crudo -- thin slices of beautiful fish served atop an avocado mousse hidden with diced wax beans -- came close, but then went too far. I was excited from what I had seen from a previous photo back when they opened -- a kampachi, green mango and sesame salad that looked like something inspired by 42 Grams. The version I got was more of a layered disc of ingredients than a delicate composition. All the flavors worked together, but instead of being the star, the fish became part of a three's company, overpowered by an acidic bath. They may have been going for something more casual than overly plated, which I get, but I would have liked something a little more composed and modest to give the fish its due.
If there was one dish that I expected to most likely speak to Kim's soulful point of view, a true signature piece, it was going to be the hot pot, which sits at the bottom of the menu at $36. Dashi, rich seafood stock, and fresh shellfish served steaming hot in a large Dutch oven, with bowls for sharing. It would be the kind of dish you'd imagine curling up to and hugging if food could be hugged, eating it with your elbows on the table, shoulders hunched over, a crusty piece of bread as another serving spoon, the humanization of soul in a dish.
Their version that night was an interpretation on a soon doo boo (spicy tofu stew) -- spicy beef marrow, crab broth, silken tofu, mussels, prawns and squid with fennel layered on top. I had high expectations and my expectations were met. The flavors are delicious, and it provides you with the type of experience that a casual Korean inspired concept should offer -- perfect stock and dashi, the right amount of salt and heat, chunks of vegetables and seafood waiting for you at the bottom of the bowl. The prawns come with shells and heads intact, so eating it becomes sort of a logistical issue, but the shells add character to the rustic and earthiness of the dish, so I didn't mind getting my hands involved in the process. (Eater tip: when you break the head off, you'll introduce another level of fishy umami to the already perfect broth. If shrimp heads and what's inside of them is your thing, think fishy and fatty; you'll love the addition, but I would caution to not mess with what they perfected and peel it separately.) Admittedly, the seafood that night wasn't as strong as the broth itself, but I'm curious what they do to other versions. A word of caution: this thing is huge, so if you're getting it for two, you'll need one or two starters maximum.
Although Matty Colston's bar program is small, it shouldn't go without mention, judging by the Johnny Drum 101, a Manhattan infused with lapsang souchong, a traditional Asian black tea. It is a cocktail that can stand up to any Logan Square bar, and the wine list also doesn't disappoint, with glasses of wine starting at $8.
Additional details, like old school vinyl R&B playing through the dining room, properly timed coursing, a friendly and knowledgeable staff, and Kim herself on the floor setting tables, running food and greeting guests, give the place exactly what it needs as a neighborhood spot: character. Outside of a few picky but otherwise forgivable misses, the food and the menu choices work, and are a breath of fresh air to Chicago's food scene. What happens when the honeymoon period of "What's Hot Now" ends will tell what their next story will be, as the drawbacks of Parachute's remote location and another predicted cold winter make getting people in seats harder, putting pressure on their very public tight margin. If the saying "with high risk comes high reward" manifests itself as true over the next few months, Kim and Clark will have proof that indeed, there are second acts. I look forward to seeing what they continue to do to educate Chicago on Korean-inspired cuisine.
3500 N Elston Ave.
Photos courtesy of Jordan Clark