Monday, January 4, 2010

Urban Belly - Great Concept, Amazing Asian Flavors

On Saturday night six of us headed over to Urban Belly at 3053 N. California in Chicago. It was a cold, crisp night and we waited 10 short minutes in our car - we expected much longer since we had arrived well past 6 pm. We got lucky. By the time we were done the wait was a lot longer with folks filling up the vestibule and spilling out into the parking lot.

The concept is simple - get your seats at one of the four long, wooden communal tables. Choose your dishes, go up to the counter, place your order and pay. Sounds familiar - just like Panera? - but the food is worlds apart! Grab your number with its little stand and in a few minutes the food will come streaming out of the kitchen to fill your belly with delicious Korean fusion cuisine.

The noodle bowls and rice dishes are amazingly satisfying and perfectly seasoned - no need to use the little bottle of crushed hot pepper or soy type sauce that were on the table. The bowl with rice cake (flat noodle) "shavings" with mango and chicken was a textural feast with the chewy noodle pieces and a not too spicy yet flavorful broth. The hominy and pork belly bowl was delicious but so different from the norm that it made one seriously think about what they were eating - a rarity these days.

The Chinese eggplant with Thai basil - pictured above - a small salad served cold with a well balanced yet tart dressing is a must have as are the short ribs and rice - garlicky, tender short ribs atop long grain (jasmine?) rice with little flecks of cooked egg and scallions. A pork belly with pineapple rice bowl met with grunts of approval from the group.

The dumplings were inventive and tasty but not as satisfying as the rice or noodle bowls. Perhaps it was some of the sauces served with the dumplings that diminished their potential. A duck dumpling with pho spices was overpowererd by the strong taste of star anise and the tasty pork and cilantro filling in another was overwhelmed by the hoisin like sauce. The bacon and Asian squash dumplings were very tasty and light in comparison to the others we tasted.
Urban Belly is fun and it's food full of good flavors - if you like Asian cuisine and can handle meeting a few new faces at your table - you'll enjoy it.

(Important copyright note: all of the pictures included on this posting are from the Urban Belly website.)

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