Feeling Groovy: New Asian Fusion at Sunda

As if I didn’t feel old before, I feel downright ancient after a recent visit to Sunda Restaurant in River North.

It’s the kind of aggressively groovy restaurant that ages you instantly upon entering.

Don’t get me wrong, the interior, created by Tony Chi, is a gorgeous study in polished black bamboo, with super-cool light fixtures and an incredible sushi bar as a focal point of the high-ceilinged room. But this is a scene for the young and the hip (with the occasional well-preserved cougar thrown in), and the noise level is assertive, to say the least. Thankfully, the food stands up to the onslaught.

Chef Rodelio Aglibot knows his way around Asia. The menu is a bit daunting, but it’s meant to be shared, so my advice is to jump in and order a bunch of stuff for the table. The waitstaff is incredibly helpful in terms of portions, and they’ll let you know if you’ve over-ordered.

Entranced by the sushi bar, lined with trays of prisine, jewel-like raw fish and seafood, we started with a few rolls: Shrimp Tempura ($9); the Garden Vegetable ($10), with cucumbers, shiitake, avocado, asparagus, spring mix and ponzu sauce in a soy paper wrapper; and the Spicy “Tail of Two Tunas” ($13), a combo of yellowfin and super white tuna, pickled jalapeño, and crispy fried shallots. All three were delicious and artfully presented.

Sushi rolls: Shrimp Tempura ($9); the Garden Vegetable ($10), with cucumbers, shiitake, avocado, asparagus, spring mix and ponzu sauce in a soy paper wrapper; and the Spicy “Tail of Two Tunas” ($13), a combo of yellowfin and super white tuna, pickled jalapeno, and crispy fried shallots.

Not so successful were the Sunda specialty cocktails. We tried a few, and ended up sending back two of the three. Each cocktail sounded promising in theory, but in practice, it seemed that ingredients were missing and they ended up surprisingly flavorless. Luckily, there is an impressive and diverse list of sakes and Asian beers. My vote is that they pair better with the food anyway.

Other appetizers sampled included a Warm Spinach and Mushroom Salad ($10), generously topped with sautéed Asian mushrooms, crispy onions, and a tasty ponzu and olive oil vinaigrette; Steamed Soup Dumplings ($6), served 3 to an order, were plump bundles of seasoned ground pork in an enriched broth with red ginger vinegar; Indo Corn Fritters ($8), a generous portion of somewhat greasy corn fritters flecked with coriander and presented with a Sweet Onion-Ginger Sauce for dipping; and the housemade Longevity Garlic Noodles ($7) tossed with cheese and toasted garlic. Simple and delicious, the noodles are also available with blue crab meat ($14).

Warm Spinach and Mushroom Salad ($10)

Entrées did not disappoint. We split the Malay-Style Chilean Sea Bass ($29), seasoned with coriander, lemongrass, chiles and miso and nestled on a bed of Curried Cauliflower Puree. Not a huge portion, but done perfectly. In contrast, the Thai Fried Chicken Half ($18) was rather enormous, leaning against a tower of fried rice noodles and served with two sauces. The coconut milk came through persuasively (in a good way). A Beef Lo Mein dish ($15) hit the spot, with juicy chunks of steak and lots of colorful veggies amidst the fresh noodles. A side dish of Dry-Braised Green Beans ($7), wok-fried with Lap Cheong (a Chinese sausage) and Walnuts, was salty, crunchy and a little sweet. Yum.

Asian restaurants aren’t generally known for their desserts, but this is not the place to stick to your diet.

Thai Fried Chicken Half ($18) was rather enormous, leaning against a tower of fried rice noodles and served with two sauces.

Although the Molten Chocolate Cake ($9) was a tad overcooked and thus not sufficiently melty at the center, the Cookie Bite sampler ($8), laden with all sorts of shortbreads, macaroons, and drop cookies featuring ginger, citrus and other Asian flavors, was worth every calorie. Couldn’t pass up the Mochi Sampler ($9), which featured mango, green tea, strawberry, chocolate and vanilla mochi (ice cream wrapped in a sweet, flavored rice paste) and came with chocolate and raspberry sauce to gild the lily.

As we left the restaurant, we couldn’t help but notice the groups of youngish singles working the bar area.

Waiting for our car, we watched a drama unfold involving a very loud cell phone conversation.

 

It’s funny, but when we were sitting and eating at the table, I felt worlds away from Rockit Bar & Grill, one of Sunda’s sister restaurants. But the bar crowd was a reminder that it wasn’t so far from reach. I guess it’s inevitable, but I could do without that. Wonder what the lunch crowd is like? Same food, different crowd? That would be worth a try.

 

Sunda
100 W. Illinois St.
Chicago
(312) 644-0500