Sunda Review: Sunda in Chicago

Sunda Review: Sunda in Chicago

Guest Post Time! Jonathan is back again with a post from Chicago. This time it’s about an Asian-y restaurant. I’m always weary of restaurants that can’t figure out their identity, but this place sounds pretty promising, and I’ll let Jonathan take it away here:

In general, I haven’t found many “pan-Asian” restaurants that I like. In fact, I am more likely to dislike a place if it is described as pan-Asian than if it is not. Maybe I’m too harsh, but usually I find that all the cuisine ends up as a watered down version of the original. It’s a matter of focus; Asia’s a big place. So when I heard about Sunda, a new Asian concept, had just opened a few blocks from my apartment in River North, I was skeptical.

The restaurant, like previous ventures by the group behind Rockit Bar & Grill and The Underground was decidedly trendy. And like pan-Asian, trendy can be a gamble. But Sunda has proven to be an exception. Perhaps it’s because of how deliberate everything seems. A special mixologist was brought in to design the drinks and Tony Chi to design the interior. All of which are impressive. But it’s the food, which surprised me most. The food is both unique and familiar. While the menu is heavily inspired by Chinese and Japanese flavors (i.e., sushi bar and duck buns), it incorporates Cambodian, Vietnamese and Filipino influences as well. The restaurant makes a point to call the cuisine new Asian rather than pan-Asian. And while it may be a matter of semantics, it works. The food does feel new and fresh even if I have seen it before.

The chef, Rodelio Aglibot, has been named the Food Buddha; and it’s evident immediately upon seeing him. Rodelio is bald, bearish and friendly. After eating at Sunda a few times, I was excited to hear that Rodelio would be doing a demonstration at the Green City Market this week. So I made a point to head out and see him in action. He was making a salad from ingredients found around the market. While the demonstration was short (only lasting about 30 min), it was enough to help me understand why I might like his food. Rodelio, as it turns out, was born in the Philippines and raised in Hawaii. He was trained as an engineer and worked for 3 years as such after graduating from UCLA. And it was only later that he re-found food. It is all this that he brings to his food. There is a thoughtfulness evident in his food. While the food of most chefs reflects their experiences in some way, each dish at Sunda seems to have a story behind it. And while Rodelio says as much when describing his food; it means a lot to me that when I eat his food, I want to hear that story.

Here are some tasting notes from Sunda:

Amuse Bouche: Mini turnips cakes like a dim sum tease. Papadums with a beet chutney. The beet chutney is sweet with a strong taste of cilantro.

Sushi/Sashimi: Oyster shooters on special are fresh and meaty. The truffled tuna tataki is subtle and satisfying with a base note of earthy truffle.

Salad: The burnt watermelon and unagi “nigiri” is listed mysteriously under the salads. The watermelon is cut into small rectangles and topped with a bit of chili and caramelized. The subtle sweetness of the juice and the crisp texture of the melon oddly matches with the eel.

Dim Sum: Roasted duck buns are becoming ubiquitous. But the buns are soft and the filling is flavorful; and I’ll keep ordering them.

Hot Appetizer: The “Toast and Jam” is addictive. Shrimp toast with a “jam” of spicy tuna. I would eat this all the time if my arteries weren’t already in danger. The “Devil’s Basket” is an iron cast full of chilies and deep fried soft shell crabs. I find myself sucking on the chilies to keep the flavor in my mouth.

Entrée: Malay-style Chilean sea bass is a nice thick piece of fish. The cauliflower puree is a nice partner. The Crispy Pata is a confit of pork shank served with a garlic-foie gravy. It looks intentionally intimidating. The meat is surprisingly moist.

Dessert: Avocado mousse. Yes. Avocado mousse. Better than it sounds.

“Ridiculous” is an appropriate name for a dessert with a layer of fried carrot cake on vanilla ice cream covered in a caramel sauce. Ridiculous.

Sunda110 W Illinois St.Chicago, IL 60654312-644-0500

Posted by Danny on August 17, 2009 at 7:29 pm

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