I half-dreaded visiting Chicago.
My first trip happened years ago when I met my arch nemesis: snow. While pretty to look at for a few minutes, I subsequently spent the next few hours shivering in a fetal position under covers in full winter regalia and with the hotel heater at full blast. Needless to say, I was not made for the cold.
Also, Chicago cuisine is not my cup of tea. Deep dish pizza, Chicago hot dog and popcorn was not something to write home about. So, when my friend invited me to the NRA (not the gun-totting kind), National Restaurant Association Convention, I was weighing the cons and pros for a few days.
Fortunately, my curiosity won out and I am so glad it did because this trip changed my perception of Chi-town's foodscape. Of course, I made it a point to avoid all tourist traps, so no Yelp and instead, I only consulted friends with a strong penchant for eating well.
One such recommendation was Ruxbin. It's an almost brand spankin' new restaurant near Wicker Park that's creating a buzz in the community for its renditions of American comfort food fused with Korean flavors—and doing it well. Not to mention it is a dream project of the brother-sister duo of Ed (formerly of Per Se) and Vicki Kim (USC alumna, a fellow Trojan literally—my friend was in the same student organization with her!). With a story like that, how can I not visit?
So after a red eye flight and a full day of work and exploring, we made our way to Ashland. In an unassuming building on a sketchier block, Ruxbin was quite a sight to behold in all its reclaimed and steampunk glory. What was not good though was that it was already a full house when it was only 6 pm.
My fears were confirmed when we were turned away as there was a 2+ hour waitlist, merde! Fortunately, the hostess (who was actually Vicki herself as I later learned 2 courses down the road) sensed that we were travel weary and agreed to seat us upstairs in the communal wine table for appetizers—let the feasting begin!
First up, bread service. Instead of the usual bread and butter routine, we were treated to a fluffy bowl of popcorn treated with toasted seaweed. So addicting that we scarfed down three bowls of this within minutes of getting situated.
It was a good thing the garlic fries soon arrived as we would packed away their entire popcorn supply! Thinly cut, expertly fried and sprinkled with just enough garlic, these fries made for a top class appetizer, especially when dipped (and doubled dipped) in their housemade smoky chipotle aioli.
We also ordered the Ruxbin's Croque Monsieur. Normally it's leaden with cheese and quite deadly, but this rendition was given major lippo and makeover with the use of fresh tomatoes, olive tapenade and a sprinkling of herbs.
For libations, we let our server (who was also the in house mixologist) take care of us. His special of the night was a homemade ginger soda with lemongrass, cucumber and Thai chili. It started out refreshing and cool and slowly grew spicier as the meal progressed. Lovely!
By then, a table opened up and we were ushered downstairs. It was a feast for the eyes being fully immersed in the dining room. With Vicki as our guide, she pointed out the reclaimed elements, which was basically every piece in the room! Here are some highlights: the glass wall was salvaged from a DJ booth, the lights made from old chandeliers and school chairs, seats created from old Eames chairs and seatbelts and the ceiling were decoupage with vintage cookbook pages.
Finally, our mains arrived. Mussels bathed in a savory mixture of sake, tomatoes, orange and fennel was textbook good, but the hanger steak stole the show.
The humble cut of beef was elevated to prima dona status as it was perfectly grilled and adorned with a single caramelized yolk (made by poaching it in a solution of melted sugar and fat). When pierced, the yolk coated the slices of steak luxuriously… I am salivating just thinking about it. And it only gets better from there with the strong support cast of crispy kale and kimchi fried potatoes. It was hands down the best dish from the trip.
By then, we were ready to throw in the towel but Vicki encouraged us all to push through by sending out desserts. The first was a refreshing lime panna cotta with lychee and toasted coconut, almost like a pina colada!
The other was a grown up strawberry shortcake, was macerated berries, chantilly creme, crispy biscuit and a balsamic drizzle. The only regret I had was wishing I didn't eat as much during the meal so I could have enjoyed it more fully.
My friends and I stumbled back the car afterwards fully sated and with grins all around. We were definitely in a state of gastrophoria ;)
I couldn't have asked for a better first night in Chicago. Thank you Vicki for taking care of us and showing me Chi-town is so much more than deep dish pizza!