30 October 2009

A Restaurant Review

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

I've decided that since I live in a city that's renowned for its restaurant scene, I'll let you know whenever I try a new place or revisit an old friend. We don't eat out often, but when we do, we do it up right. It's difficult to make a truly bad choice here, that's how many accomplished chefs we have right now, and I'm loving every minute of it.

The other day was my friend's birthday. Weeknights are awkward, but we decided to have a go. She had to pick up my Cool Niece at day care at 4:30 p.m., so we decided that I would pick up some takeout and drive to her place for dinner. No problem. Except our favorite takeout joint Yes Thai is closed for renovations. The food there is amazing, truly wonderful thai food that concedes to American tastes only by offering varying levels of spiciness in a few of its dishes. However, they were closed, so there was much sighing and a little whining while we tried to figure things out.

As my friend was heading out of the office, she called me and mentioned Urban Belly a place that's relatively new and has had consistently wonderful reviews. We hadn't been there ourselves for a couple of reasons, the main one being that they don't take reservations so there's a perpetual lineup. It's not a place conducive to eating with a 2 1/2 year old, even if we did come early enough to get a table. Plus, call me cranky, but there is no goddamned way I'm going to stand out in the cold for an hour or more waiting to eat. Neither do I appreciate a bunch of people staring at me while I'm eating and audibly groaning when I order some tea at the end of my meal. I simply will not do that.

They do takeout, though. Wonderful marvelous BEAUTIFUL takeout. I ordered a couple of different dumplings to start. One was squash and bacon, the other was duck. While I was ordering, the lady that took the order apologized for not having the regular duck and said that they had substituted foie gras..... I was on that like white on rice.

(Note: I am a dedicated carnivore. I LOVE the foie. I am a friend to the pig - as long as it's prepared correctly. I see baby lambs and think "Yum". I don't care if it's politically correct or not, I sincerely don't care what anyone thinks of that, and I will probably mock unmercifully anyone who takes me to task for it. It's a non-issue and I don't want to hear about it.)

I also got a couple of noodle dishes, some gorgeous melt-in-your mouth spare ribs with rice, and wrinkle beans that were....perfect. The dumplings were pure heaven - nice clean flavors and perfect texture. The short ribs were small bites that were perfectly seasoned and tender. I ordered two noodle dishes, because this is their specialty and it's what they do best. One was a ramen noodle with pork belly, shitake mushroom and pho broth, the other was soba noodles with bay scallops, oyster mushrooms and Thai basil broth.

We put the Cool Niece to bed and ate in silence. That's how good everything was. I suspect that the rest of their menu is just as wonderful. You could just close your eyes and point and no matter what you landed on, it would be wonderful. There are very few places that either of us would say that about. On most menus there are things that occasionally fall flat. You don't, for example, order the chicken in a restaurant that specializes in fish, and for good reason. Most of the time when people try that, they end up watching enviously as their dining companions moan their way rapturously through their dinners and kicking themselves.

The chef at Urban Belly doesn't do that. It's a short menu. There are no "consolation dishes" for the picky types that want something generic to eat because they're familiar with it. When you eat there you know that you will get the best possible iteration of every dish they make, and it's enough. If you come to the City of Wind, consider it a destination, even if you can't get a seat.


  1. I've been thinking about this post for several days now. It deserves more of a response than I can give it, but the simple truth is ~ this has made me absolutely ravenous for Thai food ever since I read it.

    Whenever I eat out I always choose things that tend to be too complicated or time consuming to make at home. I'm bad that way. I would have passed on the wrinkle beans for this reason ~ I can do vegetables. Same for the noodle dishes, I'm afraid. However ~ I would have chosen every crispy spicy meaty dish on the menu. I too, am a devout carnivore, and I would have Peking Duck with Spicy Shrimp with Chinese Red BBQ Pork with Sweet and Sour Chicken with Firecracker Beef with Szechuan Scallops with Kung Pao Fish. I realize that's not Thai, but that's the gist of my ideal menu. Noodles and vegetables simply take up valuable stomach space, imho.

    If it ever looks like I might visit the Windy City, I'm definitely checking with you before I arrive for where to eat. Your taste buds are impeccable. ;) I hope your friend enjoyed her birthday.

    btw ~ who slams you for liking lamb? Not I.

  2. Urban Belly is owned by a couple with some pretty interesting culinary history between them. He's Korean, she's Hispanic and they both come from a long line of cooks. Like one review I read commented - this could come out quite strange, but it's actually wonderful.

    As to the lamb, one of the food articles in "the other place" touched on organic food and naturally all of the vegan freaks jumped on it and were trying to convince us all that Big Ag was acting in humanity's best interests were served by planting massive fields of soy.

    I pointed out that if they were relying entirely on soy as a protein source, they were stuffing themselves with GMO beans (there isn't any non-GMO soy grown in the US) that relies on massive amounts of both water and fertilizers. Counterintuitive for a bunch of people who rabbit on about all things "natural", "healthy" and "organic", right?

    The usual suspects then go on about how "unhealthy" it is to eat meat, at which I sneer at them and list of lamb and foie as the yummies that I eat regularly and it all goes to smash from there.

    If you come to Chicago, I will make sure that you are crammed full of delicious offerings from some of the best restaurants on the continent. The eating scene here is something else. If you want, I'll even make dinner myself...

  3. I'm full from lunch, and your description of the scallop noodle dish had my mouth watering. I think those little buggers are my favorite shellfish, bar none.

    You've also got me craving Thai food, and mentally preparing a little trip to the cute little local tea shop for a loose leaf refill and then a jaunt to the local Thai place for takeout. My evening just became much more interesting. *grins*

  4. That's some web site for Yes Thai, isn't it? Most of their business is takeout - it's a mixed residential neighborhood. A LOT of people live around here because there are apartments, condos, townhouses and single family homes.

    It's a tiny little place on a mostly residential street. If there's room for more than 20 people inside, I'd be shocked. They do a sidewalk cafe thing in the summer though.

  5. I too am a dedicated carnivore, but I draw the line at foie gras. Milk-fed veal? Well, some vegans on campus have called me a baby-eating barbarian. But foie is just a bit too far on the wrong side of the moral event horizon for me---probably the "Cute Animal Theory" at work. Abuse a cute animal, I'm on you like a cheap cuirass. Abuse a walking baseball glove? Not so much.

  6. I don't have time for evangelists of any stripe, and I've never met a vegan (barring my doctor) who wasn't one of those. The knee-jerk bullshit that they're prone to spew betrays a deep and deliberate ignorance of all things agricultural.

    As for foie? Well let's see. Foie ducks get to be free range for about double the life span of the average cage-raised duck that you buy at the specialty butcher. When the feeding starts, they are moved indoors and fed twice a day on straight barley. It's not physically possible for them to "choke" on the feeding tube because in birds, the esophagus is not joined like it is in mammals. They can breathe normally at all times.

    Gorging on barley is also natural for them - and yes, wild ducks DO sport big livers when they do that. It's a way of storing fat so they can survive their annual migration. I know at least one farmer who plants an entire field of barley for the sole purpose of enticing wild ducks to land there during hunting season.

    This hysteria around foie is entirely based on a 30-year-old video that has been so heavily edited, altered, spliced and re-recorded that no hint of the original remains. Foie ducks get MUCH better treatment than any other fowl we eat. They have to. Unhappy or ill ducks make lousy foie gras.

    As for veal....if you eat lamb, then what's the problem? You don't get to have it both ways. I think veal's quite bland, myself, but then I don't eat beef often either. I prefer bison.

  7. Thanks, now I'm starving. And I live in a place that's not exactly known for culinary masterpieces, much less entire restaurants full of them. I'm really going to have to move...

    I would love to live in Chicago - it's one of my favorite cities!

  8. The first time I saw Chicago it was cold and snowy and getting colder. I had to buy a down-filled jacket because I hadn't brought anything warm enough with me. There was no excuse for it, either, we were living in Toronto at the time.

    I didn't care about the weather, though. I just liked this town. The Boy had been working here for a year or so, and I would fly down on a weekend from time to time, so I could see him and save him the weekly commute. We had a blast.

    I've lived in a lot of different places in Canada and the U.S. Out of all of them, the two that I could spend a lot of time in are Chicago and Toronto. Maybe it's because both are on lakes, maybe it's the winters, but they both have amazing food scenes and if you're bored (like the magazine says....) it's your own fault.