Review: Fat Rice
2957 W. Diversey Ave. 773-661-9170
Rating: !!! ½ (out of 4) Heating up
Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon made their mark on Chicago's dining scene as the creators of underground dining club X-Marx. Hosted monthly at different restaurants, these pop-up dinners often featured overly ambitious-sounding fusions such as "Greeknamese" and "Japtaliano." And yet, when I first tried the food two years ago -- hamachi collar and sushi rice risotto, miso-parmesan dashi -- I was bowled over by how playful and smart the cross-cultural connections were.
Now, Lo and Conlon are revisiting their earlier experiments with Euro-Asian fusion in a permanent restaurant inspired by the cuisine of Macau, a former Portuguese colony in China--a fitting concept for Lo's Chinese roots and Conlon's Portuguese heritage. Still thinking about that risotto, I was intent on finding out whether X-Marx would meet its match in this one-month-old restaurant.
The open kitchen is part of the dining room, where guests watch their dishes come together from communal tables, the bar or tables for two. In its first few weekends open, there was a steady line of diners waiting for tables when I passed the restaurant on my way home; on a recent weeknight, I only had to wait a few minutes before sitting down to share a table with a pair of couples and a family with kids in tow.
Everything is made by hand and inspired by traditional Portuguese and Chinese recipes from both Lo's and Conlon's families, including fat rice noodles ($14), light and savory pork and shrimp pot stickers ($10) and fatty house-made bacon ($12). My dinner companions let out a collective "ooh!" when the noodles landed on the table. Twice the size of gnocchi, these dumpling-like morsels are thick and chewy -- and I mean that in the best possible way. Balichang catfish ($20) with pork belly, tea egg and Thai eggplant was smoky and soft, rounded out nicely by an addictive sugary-sour tamarind sauce. Bittersweet winter melon soup with dried scallop and buttery croutons ($7) instantly brought back memories of my own Chinese food-filled childhood, like staying home from school for the sole purpose of reveling in the warm, earthy aroma of the mild stew wafting through the house. Starters were hit or miss: Peanuts ($4) came overdressed with soy, but the surprising gouda-like texture and taste of the smoky tofu ($4) was one of the highlights of the night. Nothing is too sweet, especially the pineapple upside-down cake with sherry vinegar caramel ($8).
In addition to a short beer and wine list, cocktail fans will find variety in the "adult soda" mixed drinks. Options such as the ginger-saffron soda with white port ($9) are fruity, spicy and bitter, but light enough to partner with the starchy courses.
Fat Rice succeeds in feeling like you're dining in someone's home, complete with the slightly befuddled family member who brings a dish someone else made and can't quite explain what it is. Many of the servers seemed to take care all of the tables, which led to some confusion. The occasional clumsiness is smoothed out by general manager Lo, who moves between the kitchen and dining room with ease, treats new guests like old friends and often stops by to explain dishes.
Compared to X-Marx and its pricey tickets, no-reservations Fat Rice is both more affordable and accessible. With a menu that will evolve with the seasons, lunch and take-out on the horizon and another business (Mama's Nuts) slated to open next door in the new year, I can see Fat Rice becoming my new go-to place for date nights and dinners with friends. I'm already planning a return trip to try new dishes coming soon for the holidays, including pato de cabidela (braised duck with red wine and star anise) and Macanese egg tarts in time for Christmas Eve.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye.
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