IT WAS JUST a solitary piece of foliage, but it came with a big responsibility. “All the flavors of Southeast Asia are on this betel leaf,” said chef Andrew Zimmerman as he placed the small plate in front of me. He was right. That one-bite amuse-bouche, with its bounty of finely chopped exotic ingredients, followed through on its promise—as does the rest of the menu at Proxi, the new West Loop restaurant from Zimmerman and partner Emmanuel Nony.
A few years in the making, Proxi’s inspiration grew out of a desire for what the duo didn’t have at Sepia, their upscale modern American restaurant a few doors away. That means at Proxi, you’ll find an open kitchen with a huge custom-built wood-burning grill (word is it took hours to move it from the street to the inside of the restaurant) and a chef’s counter in front of it. That’s where, on most nights, you’ll find Zimmerman, manning the flames and chatting with customers lucky enough to nab one of the eight cushy bar stools. “It’s nice to be able to talk to people directly and get their immediate responses,” he says. Judging from my visits, those responses are generally along the lines of “Wow.”
At first glance, the menu’s 27 savory items, which get larger and heartier as you scroll down, offer few clues of the deliciousness that awaits. The dish descriptions portray a mix of ingredients and flavors from all over the world, including Japan, India, Thailand, Mexico and Spain, with some incorporating ingredients outside their respective borders. It’s dishes that, on paper, shouldn’t work when paired together, but do. “It’s the kind of food I’ve been making over the years at home on my days off,” says Zimmerman. (Note to self: Get an invite to Zimmerman’s house stat.)
Take, for example, the tempura elotes, which has quickly become Proxi’s most talked about dish. Zimmerman takes all the flavors of the beloved Mexican street snack—grilled corn kernels, mayonnaise, cheese and a little heat—and morphs them into a Japanese-style deep-fried fritter. “It satisfies a craving you didn’t know you had,” he says.
The same can be said for bhel puri, a classic Indian snack Zimmerman fell in love with after his many visits to Devon Street restaurants. Rather than chef it up—“Why ruin something that is already good?” he says—he sticks to tradition, combining puffed rice, fried chickpeas, tomato, onion, potato, chutney and a slew of spices. It’s a crunchy, sour, spicy and savory granola-like treat that makes for terrific company as you peruse the beverage menu from Sepia’s Arthur Hon. (I’ll make it easy: Order the Don’t Chouette It, a brightly hued, bracing cocktail made with Aperol, sparkling wine and blood-orange Champagne ice cubes that begs to be sipped slowly, but good luck with that. Or, if you want something nonalcoholic, the locally made kombucha on tap is great.)
In case it isn’t obvious, snacking at Proxi can easily become a meal. It helps that the restaurant’s layout, with its spacious bar and lounge areas, lends itself well to that style of eating. But no matter where you find youself in the beautiful 150-seat space inspired by midcentury American brasseries, it’s easy to sit back, relax and keep on ordering.
The coal-roasted oysters, topped with butter spiked with ssamjang (a spicy Korean sauce), should be included on your list. Think of them as the globe-trotting relative of oysters Rockefeller. Fried breakfast radishes are delicious, and even better when swiped through the nori-flecked butter smeared on the inside of the lovely ceramic bowl. Vegetables also make a stellar appearance in the shaved zucchini dish with a tart sheep’s-milk feta, pine nuts and mint.
Seafood and fish are well represented at Proxi, including the not-often-seen fried fish collar, a dish whose popularity pleasantly surprises Zimmerman. After trying it, with its kicky Thai garlic-chili sauce, I can see why it’s a top seller. There’s also a terrific cobia dish that benefits from inspiration from India and Thailand, with bits of deep-fried funky bitter melon floating in the coconut milk and turmeric sauce. On the meatier side, there’s merguez sausage coiled around dots of eggplant aioli and pickled radish slices. Grapes add a nice cooling element to the dish’s subtle heat.
Desserts from Sepia pastry chef Sarah Mispagel follow a similar global approach, ranging from tres leches cake to avocado mousse. It’s the latter that I keep thinking about, with its creamy green custard that gets texture from chewy tapioca pearls and a coconut tuile.
While it might seem like Proxi’s proximity to its older sibling, Sepia, was planned, Zimmerman and Nony actually looked at some 20 other potential spaces. “It’s ironic in some ways,” Zimmerman says, “that the restaurant we settled on was right next door.” Serendipity never tasted so good.
565 W. Randolph St., 312.466.1950
Large and small plates, $5-$65; dessert, $5-$8