By Lisa Arnett
September 5, 2012
Review: Belly Q
1400 W. Randolph St. 312-563-1010
Rating: !!!! (out of four) Already hot
There’s only one person who mentions the word "belly" more often than a gossip magazine’s celebrity baby-watch section. That’s Bill Kim, a fine-dining chef who’s gone casual with his super-popular pan-Asian restaurants Urban Belly in Avondale and Belly Shack in Wicker Park. In late August, he welcomed a third baby to the Belly family, Belly Q. Since I’ve been waiting for Kim’s latest creation with the bated breath of a Beyonce fan counting down to Blue Ivy’s arrival, I was happy to brave the dinner crowds during the West Loop restaurant’s second weekend open. I left with a full belly and answers to a few questions I’d been wondering about.
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Is this Korean barbecue or what?
Kind of. Kim calls Belly Q "modern Asian barbecue." What that means is he’s taken the Korean barbecue you know from grill-at-your-table classics such as Cho Sun Ok and Sab Soo Gab San and twisted the flavors in the broader, pan-Asian direction of Belly Shack and Urban Belly. Kim also hopes to make it more interactive and accessible. "You go to a traditional barbecue [restaurant and] you get 13 or 15 different [things] at your table and someone just walks away, not describing what you're eating." Six tables along the front windows as well as the chef’s table near the kitchen feature Japanese infrared grills built into the tabletops. Of course, grilled dishes are just one part of a menu that features tofu hot pots, smoked meats, salads and snacks.
>>Chef Kim says: Ventilation hoods above each grill table aim to make the grill-at-your-table experience less smoky. "It eliminates a lot of the smoke from coming toward you and making you smell like you've been in a forest preserve barbecue all day long." Kim said. Still, one of my tablemates complained the dining room’s dry air bothered her contact lens-clad eyes.
Can I order my favorites from Belly Shack and Belly Q here?
If your fave is the edamame, then yes. Kim serves the snack the same way as at his other restaurants, with soy-balsamic glaze and crispy fried shallots ($4). Belly Q also serves the same Chinese eggplant with Thai basil ($6) as Urban Belly, as well as soft-serve ($6, with fun toppings such as coconut jelly and passion fruit ice) that’s similar to Belly Shack’s. And though the Korean staple of kimchee may not look exactly the same here as at Kim’s other restaurants because it’s made with different veggies, the kicky marinade is identical.
What’d they do with the pizza oven?
It’s still here. Kim has put the wood-burning pizza oven left behind by previous restaurant tenant One Sixtyblue to use by making Korean pancakes, a favorite dish that his mom cooked for him growing up. A batter of rice flour, eggs and ice water with veggies mixed in is poured into a thin circle and then baked. Each pancake is topped with seafood ($8), goat’s milk feta ($7) or chunks of thick bacon and shreds of spicy kimchee ($8), the latter of which makes for a heavenly combo of smoky and spicy flavors. "It’s my interpretation of pizza," Kim said.
>>Chef Kim says: "Korean pancakes are one of my first things that I, as a kid, started falling in love with. My mom makes it every time I go to her house. And I’m just like, you know what? I love it so much, we gotta put it on the menu. Obviously, I’m Asian. Of course I love pizza, but we weren’t going to do pizza in there. ... It [has] crispy edges, it’s very savory and its’ very thin."
Isn’t barbecue supposed to take a long time?
"Low and slow" is for the motto for American barbecue, but Kim wanted to showcase Asian barbecue techniques that don’t take hours in a smoker to develop flavor. Tea-smoked duck breast ($20), pork steak ($18) or lamb ribs ($23) cook for about 10 minutes in a smoker with a mixture of Chinese black tea, flour and sugar. Likewise, beef short ribs ($20) spend 24 hours marinating before hitting the grill (either in the kitchen or at your table) for just a few minutes. The result is a beautiful blank slate for three made-from-scratch sauces: soy-balsamic, serrano chili (which deserves its name, Belly Fire) and hoisin. I happily bounced between them—tangy, spicy, sweet, repeat—with each bite of meat.
Does that guy behind the bar look familiar?
You bet. He’s Peter Vestinos, Sepia’s former bartender who has moved on to become a mixology consultant extraordinaire and, most recently, Belly Q’s beverage director. The last cocktails shaken by Vestinos that I drank were super-strong pours meant to be slowly savored at now-closed Wicker Park lounge The Exchange. By contrast, Belly Q’s cocktails are less potent but go down easy with food, countering all the spice and tang. For example, the Red Lotus (made with sake, yuzu, plum basil seed, cane sugar and sesame leaf, $9) is Vestinos’ answer to Kim’s request for a mojito-like drink.
>>Chef Kim says: "I was obsessed, and still am, with coconut vinegar drinks. I’m so addicted, and [I asked Vestinos,] can we do something with this coconut vinegar as a soda? He just started creating, and my god, he’s really done a great job and complements what we do." The result is The Serpentine ($9), a striking cocktail made with shochu (a vodka-like Japanese spirit) and coconut vinegar that features a long ribbon of cucumber hugging the inside of the glass.
Randolph Street has grown more crowded lately, but not everything with a Restaurant Row address delivers. Bill Kim’s latest Belly venture definitely lives up. The flavors are bold enough to keep you interested and tantalizing enough to keep you going back for more. Expect to leave with a very happy belly.
Reviewers visit restaurants anonymously and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeats
FAST FACTS ON BELLY Q
Listen up: Belly Q has a karaoke room. Here's what the chefs and owners of five nearby restaurants would sing if chef Bill Kim handed them the mic.
For groups: Bring three adventurous friends and request a grill table when you make your reservation. Grilled meats are just one part of the menu, though, so you’re not missing out if you sit in the main dining room and let the kitchen do the cooking. Larger groups can book the chef’s table (equipped with two grills) for a special menu.
For dates: Skip the stools along the bar and instead opt for a duo of high-backed chairs facing tables that are just big enough for a couple cocktails and bites to share.
Love it: Draft wine, Vietnamese iced coffee and tea on tap and appetizers priced $6 to $8 in portions similar to what you’re used to paying $10 to $14 for in this neighborhood.
Didn’t love it: Not-so-comfortable chairs and cold, chalky fingerling potato salad.
Quick fix: Visit the adjacent to-go counter to order custom salads or rice paper wraps from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Hey vegetarians: Ask before your order. Vegetarian-sounding dishes, such as the crispy fried tofu with sour plum sauce ($6), may not actually be veggie-friendly due to fish sauce lurking in marinades and sauces.
Spot the logo: Belly Q’s logo is stitched onto leather goods all over the restaurants, from the servers’ aprons to the check presenters to the arms of the high-backed armchairs in the bar.
Be like Mike: Like the former restaurant in this address, One Sixtyblue, Belly Q is a partnership with Cornerstone Restaurant Group and Michael Jordan.
Fun fact: Before the building at 1400 W. Randolph St. was One Sixtyblue restaurant, it was once a pickle factory. "You can still see the old columns that hold the building up," said Kim.
Sounds saucy: Kim said his line of Belly bottled sauces, which include a rare preservative-free version of hoisin, will hit the shelves in 36 Midwest locations of Whole Foods by November.
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