By Kate Bernot, RedEye
August 31, 2012
Editor's Note: In the time since our review, Bonsoiree has closed.
2728 W. Armitage Ave. 773-486-7511
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of four) Take it or leave it
Beverly Kim was perhaps the most controversial contestant on "Top Chef: Texas" earlier this year. Despite her quiet and seemingly sensitive personality, Kim at times became a target of other chefs' frustration. Though some fans felt she was picked on, she made it to the respectable final four, and now has an entire restaurant, Bonsoiree, to call her own. Last week, the small-but-celebrated Logan Square spot reopened with a completely new menu, which Kim hopes has her name written all over it.
"Top Chef" challenges are full of wacky rules—cooking on a ski lift, anyone?—and Kim's previous position as chef de cuisine at the Fairmont Hotel's Aria came with parameters, too. "I had to work within the confines of an a la carte restaurant," Kim said of Aria. "The dishes [at Aria] were heartier. They were beautiful, but not as extreme or on-the-edge as what we're doing at Bonsoiree."
Bonsoiree's previous chef, Shin Thompson (who remains a part owner and a presence in the dining room), made it synonymous with pristine but edgy fine dining. Kim keeps that refinement, but injects a noticeable dose of her Korean background. The menu has a modern bent too, courtesy of her husband, Johnny Clark, also a chef and a partner in Bonsoiree. "Johnny takes me out of my comfort zone," Kim says. "He's not afraid to take risk. I'm more of the groundedness. We're like checks and balances."
I stopped last week to find out what the new dynamic duo behind the burners would mean for one of the most innovative and beloved restaurants in the city.
Surrender to the menu.
Taking a cue from Next and El Ideas, Bonsoiree has switched to a ticketed reservation system, which means you'll pay for your 12-course dinner ($130 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; $160 Friday and Saturday) ahead of time. At the restaurant, a server will ask about your food allergies and whether you'd like the optional beverage pairings, but other than that, the menu's already set.
Prepare for textural adventures.
Kim's flavors aren't bold. This isn't to say they can't be pleasing, but words like "delicate" and "muted" came to mind as I sipped thin broths and ethereal sauces. Her light hand in spicing and seasoning places a premium on the dishes' unexpected textures. Battered smelts are fried whole—tail and all—in a smart preparation that preserves the oiliness of the fish but balances with crunch. Foie gras semifreddo, a chilled, whipped ball with a decadent, pate flavor, is rolled in puffed buckwheat that cracked and melted in my mouth like a gourmet version of Dibs ice cream nuggets. Not all textural experiments pay off, though. My scallop chawanmushi, a Japanese egg custard, wasn't completely set, and became a runny slime after a few spoonfuls. Thai-style ember-roasted carrots are earthy and comforting, but they're served in a somewhat gelatinous cultured coconut vinegar, poured table-side, that was difficult to spoon onto the carrots. After struggling, I left most of this clear liquid on the plate.
Don't expect everything to make sense.
I applauded some of Kim's more imaginative choices, like the roasted elderberry mignonette that topped a briny West Coast oyster starter. Others just left me confused. Why would Kim create a cheese course out of a beet chip and her own vegan, cashew-based cheese that tasted bland and vaguely grainy? And why was a beautiful purple sweet potato served with a hefty dusting of gritty nutritional yeast powder that should have been left in the health store?
Do look forward to dessert.
Many meals lose steam at dessert, but Bonsoiree's final two dishes were knockouts. A square of makkoli cake (made with Korean rice wine and rice flour) was as light as the best pound cake, with just a whisper of sweetness that made it my favorite of the night. Likewise, the pat bing su, a South Korean shaved ice with assorted crunchy toppings, tasted unexpectedly like cereal and milk.
Opt for the beverage pairings.
Bonsoiree used to be BYOB, but now carting your own booze will cost you a $35 corkage fee per bottle. Instead, $70 optional beverage pairings are masterminded by Rachel Lowe, a notable wine director who previously worked at Trump Tower's Sixteen. From effervescent French reds to offbeat Greek whites to a fun German weizenbock beer, the enthusiastic and down-to-earth staff gave me the back story and simple tasting notes for each drink. Though our wine steward was knowledgeable, a couple of pairing mix-ups kept me from feeling like this was truly fine-dining service.
Come early or stay late.
The 12-course dinner already will take up about three hours of your evening, so you may as well make a night of it and spend some time before or after your meal on the stunning new patio, visible from the glass-enclosed rear dining room. Sipping post-dinner espresso near the romantic fire pit was the perfect nightcap.
Bonsoiree does nearly everything right in terms of friendly service, pacing and sleek design, but the $460 price tag (weekend dinner for two with drink pairings) puts it in the same wallet-thinning category as heavy-hitters like Alinea and Tru. While Bonsoiree hasn't lost all the magic that made it so beloved, it needs more polish and pizazz if it's going to take on the big boys.
Reviewers visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. email@example.com | @kbernot
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