October 12, 2012

Hunger Strike | Belly flop

Bill Kim is movin’ on up, to the Near West Side, to a deluxe restaurant in the sky. Well, it’s not quite the sky, but a lucrative Randolph Street address is about as close as you can get to Chicago’s culinary heavens. Once the domain of Oprah’s studio-come-car dealership, it’s now the officially unofficial Restaurant Row where the likes of Graham Elliot, Stephanie Izard, and Paul Kahan build their golden shrines to food. So with the addition of Belly Q, the latest in the Belly empire, I can certainly understand Chef Kim’s desire to secure a place in this Meatpacking Porkthenon of cooking gods. But sometimes the hunger to succeed can become hubris. With Belly Q, Kim has cooked a bit too close to the sun, and the food drowned in the sea of meh.

Considering that the other two Belly restaurants are located under an El station and next to a laundromat, Belly Q’s sleek, stylish and spacious design lets you know that with this latest venture Bill means business. No more graffiti on the walls or pouring your own water; Belly Q has an actual wait staff, table settings and designated seating. In fact, the allusions to grandeur are evident from the moment you step inside right up until you look at the total on your check. Plush gray leather chairs, a posh full-service bar front and center, and padded sliding walls allegedly conceal private rooms and a soundproof karaoke lounge.

Patrons are handed an ornate origami menu that is sparse and frustrating, like an Ikea instruction manual. The food, however, has nothing to do with Swedish products—the waiter was pretty keen to explicate the vision for the space as something along the lines of a communal quasi-authentic Korean dining experience with a twist. There is a large open kitchen in the back and courses are actually thoughtfully paced depending on what you order, which, given the chaotic onslaught of dishes getting cranked out of most contemporary “small plates” kitchens in this city, comes across as a revelation in food service.

Unfortunately, the dishes are not the kind of unique and creative dishes I’ve come to expect from the Belly brand. The food, in the most disappointing sense, reflects that same maturity and formality of the restaurant’s chic digs. Where’s the good-natured, belly-laugh inducing fun? That sense of grunge-y late-night poor decision-making?

As with previous Belly incarnations, the appetizers and side dishes are a great way to ease into a meal. Think of it as a choose-your-own banchan adventure. Straightforward coleslaw gets some heat from the nuoc cham sauce and manages to be refreshing enough to prime your palate. The chilly, oil-poached shrimp over soba carries a clean, if unremarkable flavor, despite a messy presentation. There was also a faux-creamed spinach dish with quinoa. Note to chefs everywhere: quinoa might actually be the hardest thing in the world to eat with chopsticks, short of marbles. Or M&Ms.

But with the Thai fried chicken, I found myself lured to mediocrity by the siren’s call of a killer menu description: Two chicken strips (for $8 I may add) in a Thai-esque take on a chimichurri sauce that is the hallmark of the Kim flava wheel. Sure, the sauce is amazing, whereas paying that kind of money, in that kind of setting, for a piece of breaded chicken is not. That may sound harsh, but it’s just too easy to prime my palate for excitement. And I don’t like having my emotions toyed with like that.

There was something apologetic, and not necessarily pretentious, about the experience: from the waiter’s treatise on the nature of Belly Q’s cuisine as not quite authentic but not quite avant-garde, to the daintiness of the dishes that all too often bordered on the kind of contemporary “health” food you find at assembly-line lunch places downtown. It’s like Kim is trying to make amends for all the gorgeously-greasy gutbombs he’s made in the past, and appeal to the upmarket scenesters. But glitz, glam and Instagram a meal do not make. And there’s more than enough of that crap in Chicago as it is, let alone on Randolph Street. So, hear me out Kim, it’s not that it’s too late to apologize (ft. Timbaland), rather there’s no need to apologize in the first place.