You’ve got to respect Chef Bill Kim.
After doing time in the fine-dining destination kitchens of David Bouley (NYC), Susanna Foo (Philly) and Charlie Trotter, he joined forces with his wife, Yvonne Cadiz Kim, and got back to his roots with Urban Belly in Logan Square. It was a huge hit right out of the gate. Next came Belly Shack, a mash-up of Korean and Latino “soul” food. Another smash.
And now, with the opening of Belly Q in the old 160 Blue space on Randolph, Kim is three for three. Clearly he has his finger on the pulse of the Chicago food zeitgeist.
The interior of the previous restaurant is a memory. Filled with industrial touches of unfinished wood, rough cement, and brushed steel, it feels both warm and modern. Servers wear handcrafted leather butcher’s aprons, horses gallop across moveable glass panels, and the (somewhat sparse) lighting glows from metal baskets and funky clear glass teardrops. You will be tempted to slip the gorgeous leather check presenter in your purse. Resist the urge.
The beverage service is every bit as intriguing as the décor. Wines are offered on tap only—a revolving selection of two reds and two whites—by the glass, liter and half liter, and the bottled beer choices are limited but well-chosen.
The “Culinary Inspired” craft cocktails ($9) feature some ingredients that may be new to you, but go for it. The Serpentine blends Sudachi Shochu (a distilled Japanese spirit similar to vodka), a coconut vinegar-plum infusion and fresh cucumber into an Asian Pimm’s cup. We also enjoyed the Long Goodnight, a playful mix of bitter and sweet, with roasted pineapple, Cocchi Americano (an aperitif), lemon-berry tea syrup, Benedictine and orange bitters.
As for the food, you’ve got some choices to make, and it won’t be easy because everything sounds so damn good. Or you can follow our lead and order most of the menu. Start with some of the “belly Bites” like the Addictive Edamame ($4), bright green pods swathed in soy, balsamic, sun-dried tomatoes, fermented black bean paste, crispy shallots and who knows what else. They are like vegetable crack. Or maybe the Thai-Style Fried Chicken ($9), perfectly crisped and moist within, topped with a sweet red chili sauce. Yum.
More fried goodness appears in the guise of Crispy Tofu ($8) with sweet and sour plum sauce and pickled onions. There is some sort of hot oil wizardry happening back in the kitchen, because these are greaseless.
Opt for the Chilled Soba Noodle Salad ($10), a cool tangle of buckwheat noodles tossed with Thai basil and Chinese-style eggplant and topped with tender olive oil poached shrimp. You’ll also want to try one of their savory Asian pancakes, made in a wood-burning oven, and thinner and crispier than any I’ve had before. Ours was topped with nubs of Nueske’s bacon, kimchee and mixed greens in a black vinegar-soy sauce dressing.
The Tofu Hot Pots are a must, and perfect for sharing with the table. The Seafood variety ($14) featured dashi broth, squid, shrimp, meltingly delicious tofu, chunks of rice cake and vegetables. It had spice, but real depth of flavor, not just one note.
A few tables in the front of the restaurant feature inset grills where you can cook your own proteins in the Korean style, but we were perfectly content to let the kitchen do it for us. Banana Leaf-Wrapped Salmon ($20), was cooked to a turn, but overwhelmed by a heavy hand with lemongrass. The Asian coleslaw, vinegary and refreshing, was a bright spot on the plate. The Korean Short Ribs were a rare disappointment, but enlivened by the trio of tasty dipping sauces.
Our spirits soared with the arrival of the Tea-Smoked Duck Breast ($23), ruby slices of succulent, smoky meat atop stir-fried Chinese broccoli, accompanied by a platter of pleasantly spongy, steamed Chinese buns, a guilty pleasure. This is a don’t miss dish.
Soft Serve? Yes!
But wait! There’s more! Desserts, often an afterthought in many classic Asian restaurants, are phenomenal here. And there’s really only one, with three variations: a vanilla and coconut milk-based soft serve, creamy and divine, and layered with fruit ice. Our favorite was the Huckleberry Ice parfait ($6), topped with lime zest and Thai basil seed spheres, although the Citrus Ice with Yuzu Tapioca pearls was a close second.
This is a place I can’t wait to revisit, assuming I can ever get another reservation. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
4/5 stars (A-)
1400 W. Randolph St.