By Lisa Arnett, @redeyeeatdrink
July 18, 2013
Oon has closed.
802 W. Randolph St. 312-929-2555
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
There's a little story behind how chef Matt Eversman came to name his southeast Asian-inspired restaurant Oon. Though it's pronounced like "soon" without the "s," the name's three letters stand for "out of nowhere." "It's a phrase that was used by a couple of people that I really respect in the industry when they were describing me coming onto the scene," Eversman told me back in 2011, just a few months after leaving the chef gig at Saigon Sisters that earned him that praise.
But with a long—like more than two years long—road to opening, Eversman isn't coming out of nowhere anymore. I'm not the only one who's been waiting for him to get cooking again. "It feels great to be back in the kitchen," he said. "There is definitely an added level of pressure in that, you know, it has been such a long time coming."
Looks: It's impossible not to compare Oon to Randolph Street's other Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant, Embeya, which opened just a few blocks east across the highway last fall. While Embeya is an elaborately designed shrine worthy of being profiled in a home decor magazine, Oon is restrained and almost minimalist. The walls are white and nearly everything else—the chairs, the floor, the tables—is black or near-black. The most eye-catching features are a branch-like lighting fixture near the door and a mural of the Chicago metro area painted on the wall of the open kitchen by Eversman's roommate and childhood friend, Matt Pleger. (If you look closely, you'll see a heart where a line representing I-90 leads out to northwest suburban Crystal Lake, where Eversman and Plager grew up). Servers in jeans and Chuck Taylors and the latest chart-toppers from Robin Thicke and Of Monsters and Men certainly aren't pushing any envelopes.
Likes: Eversman's food, on the other hand, pushes without going off the deep end. Tempura asparagus ($7), which has a crispy, almost crystallized shell thanks to a corn flour batter, is served with an addictive black pepper-butter sauce that I'd like to bottle and take home. Delicate grilled prawns with lemon sauce and tiny discs of candied kumquat ($12) are served mostly shelled, with the tail and head still on the plate so you don't miss out on Eversman's favorite part: slurping the juicy morsels from the spiny head. Compared to chef Thai Dang's green papaya salad at Embeya down the street, I give Eversman's version—with its bits of mango, jicama, cucumber and a surprising but welcome guest star, pancetta—my vote. The attention Eversman paid to his vegetarian dishes—so often an afterthought—is obvious. His seasonal vegetable plate, called Foraged ($17), features daikon radish that looks like a scallop when sliced and braised, while tofu dressed in creamy barbecue sauce and corn-stuffed bao with a crunchy shell ($16) had my vegetarian pal raving bite after bite.
Gripes: Eversman knew that he wanted to put his own spin on pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, so he decided to make a duck pho and play off the flavors with seared foie gras. Voila: You have the cheekily named foie pho, pronounced "fwah fuh." The first spoonful is a fragrant balance of rich meatiness and traditional pho spices such as coriander, clove and cardamom, but every bite thereafter is, as my friend across the table so eloquently put it, "salty as f---." Five spice doughnuts ($8) sounded like a no-brainer for a sweet finish, but the centers were gooey and underdone.
Sips: A lot of restaurants looking to turn out serious cocktails will tout one hotshot mixologist, but general manager and beverage director Jon McDaniel instead brought in three: Michael Huebner, most recently from Baume & Brix; Brian Williamson of NYC's NoMad and Briar Brackney of Andersonville's Vincent (you might also recognize her as a finalist in RedEye's Best Bartender project earlier this year). "I call them my three-headed cocktail dragon," McDaniel said. Together, they've come up with a fleet of fun cocktail names and flavors to match. The Toga! Toga! Toga! ($11) is a spicy twist on the paloma made with togarashi-infused tequila, while the Phuket Al ($12) combines a strawberry-thai basil shrub with gin and herbal liqueur Fernet Branca. Fans of horchata (or Rumchata, for that matter) should try the Stroh Boat to China ($11), which mixes a house-made version of the classic Mexican almond-rice drink with Chinese five spice, vanilla and two kinds of rum, including Stroh 80, an Austrian spiced rum. With two out of three of these 'tenders manning the bar on any given night, Oon has potential as a cocktail-sipping spot in its own right.
Bottom line: I don't doubt that Eversman can tweak some salty broth here and some doughy doughnuts there; as Randolph Street's restaurant row becomes even more crowded, Oon can hold its own.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink
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