Homaro Cantu is a chef defined and limited by his excesses. At Moto, Cantu's science-based culinary sleight-of-hand never fails to dazzle even the most jaded diner, but when the presentation promises more than the dish's flavor delivers — and in my view that occasionally happens — the letdown is more keenly felt. Especially at the lofty price point that Cantu's food occupies.
Otom, the follow-up restaurant Cantu opened in 2007, was a departure from that "instructive dining" style (food so complex that diners had to be told how to eat it), and I liked the more down-to-earth approach and the more affordable prices.
But last year, Cantu scrapped Otom to create Ing, a restaurant affixed somewhere between the Moto and Otom worlds — closer in approach to the former, but more like the latter in approachability.
"We consider ourselves different from Moto," says executive chef Thomas Bowman, "but it's still the same outside-the-box thinking."
True, though Cantu's sense of humor is such that dinners at Ing begin inside the box. The menu, a single sheet of paper, arrives to the table folded, origami-style, into a cube. The cubed menu doubles as an amuse-bouche delivery system.
One visit, I unfolded the box to discover a tiny sake cup, which a waiter immediately filled with warm, buttery ramp soup; another night, a sip of watermelon-beet-sake gazpacho occupied a plastic pipette protruding from the box; topping the pipette was a tiny cube of tofu dusted with togarashi spice.
If you're already rolling your eyes, Ing is not for you.
Glance at the menu, and you see that each category ends in "ing." Chilled appetizers are "cool-ing," noodle dishes are "boil-ing," desserts are "sweeten-ing." The beverage list is similarly divided, and I'll spare you the specifics, lest you find this too annoy-ing.
The front corner of the dining room contains a noodle-making station, where dough is hand-pulled into noodles before your eyes. That is, if you're sitting up front. From the middle of the dining room on, the view is scant to nonexistent. (Given the choice of before-your-eyes noodle pulling and three extra window tables, I think I'd choose the tables.)
The noodles, however, are wonderful, and here is where Ing, I think, will succeed. Though the window-dressing may be over the top, Bowman's food, in nearly all instances, delivers on the taste front.
As the origami menu and other touches make clear, Cantu uses Ing to explore Asian flavors, in traditional and creative ways. Tamagoyaki, a labor-intensive, multilayered omelet, is played completely straight, served over seaweed salad and topped with dollops of tobiko (flying fish roe).
The oyster dish, however, is Cantu-modern, a single oyster sharing its shell with pieces of sea urchin and frozen foie gras shavings, alongside an upended glass tumbler that's filled with wood smoke. The idea is to flip over the glass and breathe in the heady aroma; a waiter adds a few ounces of beer (Boont Amber Ale on my visit) to sip as you eat.
The menu is compact and nicely focused, offering a dozen savory courses (small plates, except for three entree-size dishes) and three sweets. Highlights include pork-filled baozi buns (like Chinese bao) with scallions and enoki mushrooms, looking like mini burgers (dabs of sriracha-laced ketchup on the plate enhance the effect) but for the steamed buns' melt-away texture (the black-vinegar-braised pork belly is equally yielding).
Fish over scallop-edamame-mousse dumplings is a delight, whether it's escolar graced with lemongrass fumet or cod with white-soy fumet.
The most prosaic-looking dish is the duck breast, a beautiful plate of medium-rare slices. The surprise is in the sauce, which has notes of white chocolate and mint — utterly surprising, and delicious.
I have issues with only a couple of dishes. The okonomiyaki sake, a play on blinis and lox (okonomiyaki is a savory pancake; "sake" is the Japanese word for "salmon"), is quite pleasant, but I wanted a little more protein for my $12. A wagyu beef dish was similarly undersized, and the feedback from customers has been so negative that the dish has been banished.
Desserts are playful to the extreme. The "breakfast" looks just like bacon, eggs and hash browns, only the bacon is an artful bacon-flavored sablet cookie, the hash browns are shredded coconut, and the sunny-side egg consists of a jellied pineapple yolk and egg white that's actually lychee panna cotta. The banana split looks like state-fair food; the banana looks like a corndog, encased in sweet corn batter and squiggled with peanut-butter "mustard" and maraschino-cherry "ketchup."
There are two ways to experience the menu. In addition to a la carte dining (in itself a departure from Moto), there is the "cook by the hour" option, in which you specify the number of hours you want to eat and the kitchen delivers chef-selected courses.
It's essentially a customizable tasting menu; each "hour" includes four dishes and runs about $40 ($60 or so with beverage pairings, which I recommend), and you add as many four-dish increments as you like.
There is also a chef's table, available for one party per evening, serving a special 15-course menu; this I did not experience.
Ing is a slightly odd concept and a little too precious in places. But it seems to be work-ing.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
951 W. Fulton Market, 855-834-6464; ingrestaurant .com
Tribune rating: TWO STARS
Open: Dinner Tuesday- Saturday
Entree prices: $22-$24
Credit cards: A, DC, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four stars: Outstanding
Three stars: Excellent
Two stars: Very good
One star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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