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The soy-glazed “everything wings”

Street Smarts

by Lisa Shames | Photo: Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | August 28, 2013

It never fails. As soon as the annual CS July Restaurant Issue is put to bed, I immediately think of all the places I missed. This year was no exception. Topping my 2013 list of omissions was Ruxbin, the wonderfully quirky spot from Chicago native Edward Kim, featuring food reflective of his time spent working at restaurants in Seoul, L.A. and New York, including Thomas Keller’s Per Se.

When you think about it, though, that omission wasn’t totally my fault. I mean have you ever actually tried to snag one of Ruxbin’s 32 seats? I imagine the national attention it’s received since opening three years ago, including nods in GQ and Bon Appétit, contribute to its constantly packed status. The lack of a bar to eat at (the restaurant is BYOB) makes it even tougher for this frequent solo diner.

Which is why I, and plenty of other Chicagoans judging by the barrage of online pre-opening banter, was pretty excited about the arrival of Wicker Park’s Mott St., Kim’s second restaurant with partners Vicki Kim (his sister), Jenny Kim (his wife) and Nate Chung. Not only is it bigger than Ruxbin, located not far away, it also includes a charming patio, which offers a peek into the action going on in the kitchen through a window and, much to my relief, a 10-seat bar.

If you’ve eaten at Ruxbin, you’ll see a similar personal design aesthetic going on here. But rather than follow in the whimsical vibe of its older Noble Square sibling—a banquette made out of old seat belts, anyone?—Mott St. takes a more streamlined approach. The 64-seat, light-filled space features cement floors, a whitewashed brick wall, rustic wood-topped tables and exposed ductwork. Extra style points for the colorful chopsticks and cool customized drink coasters. Those cabinets next to the long communal table aren’t just for show, either; the pantry ingredients inside them might find their way into the dishes in front of you.

And speaking of those dishes, that’s another area the two places have in common. Like at Ruxbin, the cuisine at Mott St., which takes its name primarily from the pronunciation of the Korean word for “taste,” is hard to define. Divided into six sections (Veggies & Salad, Rolled & Steamed, Soups & Noodles, Chicken, Pork and Seafood & Fish), the shared-plates menu is filled with ingredients from all over the map. That includes Italy (pancetta), Vietnam (nuoc cham), India (Punjabi curry), Japan (udon) and Korea (kimchee). Heck, even Spain, Greece and Mexico are represented, too. The way Kim sees it, this “little bit of everything” approach, with exposure to so many different cultures, represents how we as a country now eat. In less capable hands, this global mashup could easily be a mess. But in Kim’s it’s a trip worth taking.

Exhibit A: the oyster mushrooms. Pan-seared and roasted, the large pieces of fungus take on a rich, steak-like quality with the accompanying miso butter sauce adding to the tasty umami effect. If I ever go over to the dark side, er, become a vegetarian, this is the dish I’ll eat on a regular basis.

Leeks, another vegetable often relegated to a supporting role, take center stage here, too. By grilling them, they get a nice char flavor, and the finely chopped almonds add some crunch. Butter tricked out with sahmjang, a spicy Korean sauce (don’t feel bad, this food writer had to look up names of ingredients, too) gives it some kick.

Less impressive are the greasy deep-fried kimchee- and Oaxaca cheese-filled spring rolls. If I’m going to get messy—and trust me, you will; there’s a reason a wet wipe is provided—I prefer the deep-fried “everything wings.” There’s some juicy meat to be found under the sesame- and poppy seed-encrusted skin. (Tip: Skip the accompanying tzatziki dipping sauce.) But heat-seekers take note: Unlike their American counterpart, there isn’t any mouth-searing spiciness in these poultry parts, or, for that matter, in any of the dishes here.

What you will find instead is an abundance of tart, tangy flavors, ranging from a simple dish of housemade pickles to the more complex bowl of buckwheat noodles served cold in a refreshing vinegar broth with rare pieces of beef brisket, half of a hard-boiled quail egg, and razor-thin slices of turnips and radishes. A hard dish to share—hey, how about the other half of that terrific egg?—but worth the effort.

Even some of the cocktails from Chad Hauge, formerly of Longman & Eagle, have an acidic, palate-cleansing slant to them, including the Summer Storms made with Chinaco Blanco tequila, cucumber, green tea, lime, chile syrup and ginger beer. For a buck extra, you can add in some of those bubble tea tapioca balls, but I prefer mine without.

Of all the shouldn’t-work-but-do ingredient pairings perhaps the most striking is found in the stuffed cabbage. Sticky rice is layered between pieces of shredded pork butt and Napa cabbage and topped with chopped scallions. A quick pan sear crisps up the top layer. Underneath the whole thing is a light kimchee broth. While I’m sure my Russian Jewish grandmother would’ve been shaking her head in disapproval at this riff on her signature dish, I imagine she, like me, would have been fighting to get the last bite of it, too.

Mott St.
1401 N. Ashland Ave.
773.687.9977
mottstreetchicago.com

Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5:30pm-late
Menu: Small plates, $6-$30 desserts, $2-$8

Fish Head
Gather five of your friends for the fish head roasted in black bean sauce with plenty of fixin’s ($200). Be sure to reserve two days in advance.

Beer Nuts
The grapefruit Stiegl Radler—on tap, no less—goes terrific with the fermented flavors here. Even better when paired with a malört back.

Snack Attack
Creative bar snacks are in the works, including some kicky crispy buckwheat noodles with spicy peanuts and bits of dried fish.

Sweet Stuff
There are only three desserts, but the mini chocolate-dipped banana studded with peanuts, peppercorns and salt is delicious—and fun.