GIMME SOME KIM(CHI)
I have a confession to make. I’ve fallen in love with a strip mall restaurant.
That’s right, this fast food-snubbing, rating-worshipping, self-proclaimed culinary elitist has been swept away by a noodle and dumpling shop where the dishes top out at a measly 13 bucks and the closest attraction is the Laundromat next door. That an epicurean gem could be nestled beside a business that functions exclusively on quarters seems unlikely, sure. Thing is, once you taste the food, it also seems irrelevant.
As the brainchild of Bill and Yvonne Kim, it’s really no wonder. Both of Trotter tutelage, the pair bring years of experience – including stints at Trio, New York’s Bouley, and most recently, Le Lan – to the communal table, coupling their fine-dining sensibilities with Asian staples to the effect of unpretentious gastronomic success. In the few months it’s been open, Urbanbelly has garnered a near cult-like following. And as my last visit indicated (p-p-p-packed on a frigid Wednesday), these aren’t fair-weather fans.
Perhaps it’s because the menu reads like a triumvirate of pan-Asian deliciousness. The dumplings – like, say, the duck and brandy duo – are simple, yet refined; the fried rice – gimme the melt-in-your-mouth short rib selection any ol’ day – is innovative with respect for tradition; and the noodle soups – the rice cake with chicken, mango and Korean chili sauce is the definition of my jam – are like steaming vessels of soul-satisfaction.
Like, crave it for weeks on end (I have), want to sip it straight from the bowl (I do), finish the entire thing despite the fact that it’s the size of your head (every time) kind of satisfying. I think I consumed my body weight in soba the last time I was there. The time before that, too. It's invariably worth it.
The space is warm, if minimalist, a single room lined by four Chinese Elmwood tables with an ordering counter at the back. And while the c-word has become borderline ubiquitous these days – everywhere from Duchamp to Sepia to the Publican offers the opportunity to dine and discuss with strangers – at Urbanbelly communal chowing isn’t an option, but the standard. You sit where there’s an available stool, sip on your soup, and inevitably, start chatting.
Yvonne describes it as “very L.A.,” and it is. The room feels open and relaxed, and so, too, is the conversation; you’re as likely to witness a couple debating Steppenwolf’s greatest as you are an industry strategy sesh over how to defeat graham elliot in football –and I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t disclosed sexcapades at a full table. There’s just something about noodles and communal that seems to make people feel unfettered. (N.B.: Taking advantage of the BYOB policy probably doesn’t hurt.)
But for me, the real magic happens in the kitchen window, where chef Bill Kim – donning a bandana and perennial air of amusement – parks himself each night. Ever the gracious host, he wears an expression that seems to say “YEAH, this is the house that I built.” And I’m sitting there, like, “I know, and it is the coolest.”
Recession-friendly, robust and rife with revelry, Urbanbelly is a Chicago classic in the making. It’s also responsible for popping my strip mall-eatery dumpl– I mean, cherry.
I've another confession. It felt good.
sex & dating.
I hate to break it to you, but you probably never had it. Much like the way you talk up your net worth in the beginning of the relationship, we little minxes sometimes say things to play up our sexy, venturesome natures that probably wouldn’t pass a polygraph. The fact that she’s been radio silent about someone joining you in the sack (or on the kitchen counter, taste-depending) means she wasn’t really open to begin with, and if you broach it after a two-year conversation hiatus, you’ll just make her wonder if you’re sexually unsatisfied. My word of advice: let this one go. If she were actually jonesing for a third, she’d have brought it up again.
Seriously? Yes, we like it. We love it. Like, a lot. Feigned enthusiasm occurs for one of two reasons: because she thinks you don’t like going down on her and thus tries to speed the process along, or because you’re bad at it. Seeing as it’s borderline impossible for your mouth on our nether regions not to feel good (unless you're biting. NO BITING.), chances are your faker’s in the former camp. Make it known that you’d like nothing more than your head between her legs, and I assure you her ensuing moans will be legit.
Only a little. Some people can’t deal with a partner who’s chub, or has a jacked grill, or wears dad jeans, and others just don’t dig that much foreskin. If it’s hindering your attraction to him, it’s a legit issue – and unlike the denim, this one isn’t an easy fix (it can be fixed, mind you, but it ain’t fun). Ask yourself if it’s really a dealbreaker; if you find yourself not wanting to bone because of it, it may be. Uncircumcized slingers are tricky beasts – they’re more apt to bleed, and if their owners are anything less than diligent about hygiene, they get gnarly. Fast.
If you think it might be a matter of foreignness, however, give it time. That extra foreskin means heightened sensation for men, and some women, too, say it actually feels better. Change can be good.
Should you decide that it’s just not your jam, though, do him a favor and don’t cite the dick as cause of the split. Imagine being told your labia are too big. No person needs that kind of genital scarring.
I want you to hear me loud and clear – all women like to be taken care of when we’re sick (where sick means colds/flus/things that don't involve the butt). She keeps telling you she looks gross and that her best friend’s tending to her? Doesn’t matter. She wants you to show up on her doorstep soup in hand, and she wouldn’t mind if you fed it to her either. Your willingness to see us puffy, vulnerable and potentially hallucinating speaks volumes about how much you care, and that will make us adore you, if not give you filthy, flu-abetted (or hindered, but whatever) gratitude sex. Consider this a life lesson. Commit it to memory.
CABBAGE NEVER LOOKED LIKE THIS
When I was six, my family went to Mexico. With our bikinis, our sunblock and our beach reads, I readied myself for a fun-filled, if uneventful holiday (I was six!). But rather than pore over vapid chick lit, my mom opted for ‘Fit for Life’ – and while I noshed on carne asada, mi madre was being persuaded to forgo meat. She finished the book beachside and left Mexico a vegetarian. Thus, so did I.
My rationale became more philosophically driven over the years, but my mouth paid that zero mind; it wanted makeouts and steak, in that order, and you better believe it was not content to have just one. So at 17 – after 2,300 Boca burgers and at the obvious peak of rational decision-making – I called it quits. My inner moral turmoil notwithstanding, I haven't looked back.
So when I was told repeatedly about the wonders of Green Zebra, a vegetarian restaurant, I was predictably skeptical. I had gone sans meat, ingested all the soy protein, craved all the duck breast. Eating vegetarian, I'd convinced myself, was no fun.
I was wrong.
Green Zebra is a sort of surreptitious vegetable oasis. Unabashedly meat-free, even the biggest carniwhores among us seem to forget that by our third bite, or remember but don’t care. I experienced the former on my first experience, and by dessert, I was adding Green Zebra to my list of best restos IN INK. It’s been two years and multiple visits since, and let me tell you something: It ain’t going anywhere.
The menu is globally influenced
without feeling muddled, a multi-genre approach that excites the palate without overwhelming. It changes seasonally, but to give you an idea/make you jealous, a taste of what's notable a ce moment:
The caramelized endive – with baby beets, blood oranges and candied pecans – is a mind trick of a dish, the whole thing drizzled with rosemary honey so delectable I'd have licked the remnants off my plate had there been any. Befuddled, I was like “Wait, wait, wait, am I eating vegetables or candy? Oh? Vegetables that taste like candy?!” Then: “I’ll have four, thanks.” Our server
thought I was kidding. My date knew better.
Buttermilk polenta, by contrast, is savory and flavor-packed, its humble roots elevated by the textural contrast of chestnut slices, and again by the acidic zing of quadruple-pickled peppers. My tasting notes read ‘I am a believer.’ Consider my faith in cornmeal renewed.
And perhaps the most complex dish I’ve had chez GZ recently is the parsnip ravioli – with tart grapefruit, winter greens and whole almonds – a lesson in contrast at once sweet, bitter, nutty, creamy, & acidic. A roving interplay of flavorful delights, this layered wonder left me speechless. Almost zero people are capable of doing the same.
There are, of course, a couple of every-visit must-eats, items that perennially grace the menu because they’re too good to ever be nixed. I’m talking about the shiitake mushrooms with savoy cabbage and crispy potato wrappers, a playful take on a spring roll that remains one of the best courses I’ve consumed in this city, and the poached egg – with sourdough and smoked potato puree – that doubles as an excuse to throw dining etiquette to the wind. You pick up the slice of sourdough, soak up the yolk and bacony potato (yes, it really tastes like bacon), and delight over the fact that you’re eating with your hands. Sop, swallow, repeat.
I don’t care how much you like your steak and potatoes – or scallops and foie, or rattlesnake sausage – you will survive a night without them, and at Green Zebra, you’ll be happy you did. With zucchini and zen, this Shawn McClain masterpiece will open your culinary horizons, and have you extolling the merits of daikon before you know it.
(Author's note: as you'll likely discern from the first line, this was written in 2011, before either sexting or kale had reached cultural saturation. But it's still fun. And frankly, the advice stands.)
Things I'm currently obsessed with: Kale.
(It's a short list.)
Like, attack-with-reckless-abandon/partake-in-inappropriate-places/can’t-go-four-hours-without-them-type obsessed. They’re delicious. They both do my body good. I’ve found the elusive healthy fixes.
I kind of think they should be yours, too.
But since this isn’t a vegetablog – and because I’m pretty positive no one’s taking issue with the kale-as-nutritional-powerhouse stance – I’m going to set the leafy greens aside (seriously, though, go eat some). This is about the mighty sext (<-- sexual text, in the event you’re confused). Consider it both your conversion and crash course.
For those of you already on board, kudos – way to recognize an awesome thing when you read it. For those, however, questioning the merits of bawdy banter, I hear you, too. I get how it might seem like PG porn. But indulge me a minute. It has its benefits.
Not only will a well-composed sext get your creative juices flowing (can porn do that?), it’ll do the same for all sorts of hers. There is no better way to boost yourself from that 2pm (and 4pm, and 11am) malaise without leaving your ergonomic chair, and when real sex isn’t feasible (i.e. you’re desk-shackled or miles apart), this is your best use-anywhere, not-not-safe-for-work bet.
Thanks to the strange anonymity of a PDA screen, sexting’s also an apt means of pulling latent fantasies out of otherwise “nice” girls, and if you’re swapping smut with someone more sexually overt, you just might end up
with pictures. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t sent one today.
And a little secret, guys – a salacious exchange can be as stimulating as foreplay. You write us right, and we’ll drop trou that much faster the next time we see you.
Just keep in mind that if you’re first-timing it with someone, you may have to baby-step your way in. You wouldn’t suggest anal within three minutes of getting a woman naked, and you, too, ought not go triple-X during your inaugural sextchange. If her responses are flirtatious, up the ante a little. If you’re getting one-word replies, you’re coming on too strong.
And should you be A-gaming it enough to receive a photo, do us a favor and don’t send one back. I know you want to level the playing field and that you’ve been really working those obliques, but naked dude shots tend to feel a little too Playgirl to titillate. Leave the picture proffering to us, and you worry about what quip you can make about our tight asses. We’d rather see your labor’s fruits in person anyway.
On a final, vital note, it behooves you to always double-check your recipient. When a guy I’m seeing attempted to sext me last week, Sean B. instead got a message from his bud intimating that he’d like to put his tongue on a piece of anatomy Sean doesn’t even have. The story, admittedly, made me laugh and at least a little hot, but still. You don’t want to be that guy.
Whom you do want to be is the man who can turn a woman on simply by unlocking her phone.
Just be prepared for obsession. Send me your best sextcerpts. And eat your kale.
academia & art collide
It all came down to the macaron. After a combined 17 courses, eight alcohol pairings, four-plus hours and maybe 700 ingredients (don’t quote me), the quintessential Parisian pastry appeared before us. Peering at it, I contemplated how tonight’s variety, brown sugar, might taste, well aware that I was teetering precariously between sated and uncomfortably full. But as I bit into the warm, pillow-like cookie, my mind went quiet; its crunchy exterior gave way to a chewy, ganache-filled center and I glided into sugar-induced bliss. My eyes closed, denying one sense to amplify another. It was the perfect ending to the Gras gastronomic journey: Laurent’s seductive final touch.
It was also unexpected – an exclusively visceral delight to top off a meal otherwise intensely intellectual. At L2O, you will undoubtedly experience the sheer pleasure of eating really, ridiculously well. You will also
experience food relentlessly thought-provoking, a presentation of dish after dish that demands dissection. Take French-Japanese fare, add impeccable traditional technique, throw in a smattering of molecular gastronomy and you’re beginning to scratch the surface that is this culinary wonder. It’s a restaurant whose foundation is built at once upon immaculate execution and creative innovation. It’s about interplay, paradox. It makes you think.
Like about the intersection of old and new, as is so brilliantly exemplified with the scallops. Prepared two ways, they come both perfectly seared and as domes of mousse, an avant-garde manifestation nestled next to the
customary. My mind wrestled with the notion of scallop in mousse form while my mouth assumed the reins and dove in; every bit as unconventional and definitely more delicious than one might imagine, the whipped mollusk was a bellwether of body/brain debate to come. The foie gras snow – atop tuna tartare, with tomato carpaccio and insanely mini cubes of hibiscus gelée – provoked similar contemplation; I, like most, am accustomed to my foie fleshy. But the frozen flakes, foreign in sight and sensation, proved oddly familiar to the tongue: after a moment of cold, the ethereal snow melted and my palate recognized the creamy richness as the unmistakable taste of foie. It was gras, done Gras-style. And let me tell you, je l’aime.
That style is also one of an utter aesthete, a man with a taste for plated art. When the arctic char hit the table, it became a question of play versus purpose, the fish accompanied by a green checkerboard of zucchini- and pea-puree that looked both palatable and almost too precious to eat. To be seen or consumed? we wondered. My date, who dines with his mind more than his stomach, opted not to desecrate the vibrant game piece, but I'm of the if-it's-on-your-effing-plate-it-ought-to-be-ingested school of thought. I slid the char through the vegetable squares, plopped the bite in my mouth, and delighted in the vindication of knowing I'd made the right choice. A symphony of nuanced flavor, the dish reminded me that at L2O, every element has its purpose; the cuisine is serious with a smack of whimsy, but there’s no novelty for novelty’s sake. That apparently inconsequential potato ribbon looks exquisite next to your pork belly, sure. But I assure you, it tastes good, too.
And sometimes it’s that last note that seems precisely what Laurent is after. After 17 courses, eight alcohol pairings and four-plus hours, he proffered the inimitable macaron and gave our brains a break. After a meal artful and academic, Gras graciously reminded us that he can do viscerally appetizing, too. After an eye-opening gastronomic extravaganza, this cookie was as if to say “et maintenant, mes amis, RELAX.” And in that final moment, analysis was rendered unnecessary. It was a brilliant and beautiful thing.
I applaud your chutzpah, cowboy. Two ways this can go. One: Approach the taken girl and she’ll shut you down, or flirt with you to make her boyfriend jealous (watch out, dude)... and then shut you down. Either way, you’re getting rejected. But you’ve still got chutzpah! Moving on.
Approach the single girl, however, and you might have the easiest pickup of your bar-frequenting life. A woman surrounded by men is a woman fortressed, and there’s little like feeling protected that makes us want to rebel. Dare to breach the stronghold and you’d might as well be wearing chainmail: you’ll look daring, courageous, confident, and she’ll be flattered that you’d rather step into the lions’ den than the petting zoo of ladies milling unattended around the bar. That said, in almost any girl’s group of guys is a lover spurned, so don’t expect the crew to welcome you into their bromance. Of course, she knows this, and chances are it’ll only make her more open to that game you’re spitting. The dudes won’t be nice, she’ll be that much nicer. Short-term pain for slightly less short-term gain, right? Right. Godspeed.
Riddle me this: Is she too rough, or are you uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar? If it’s the latter, I recommend you keep your mind open and your mouth shut (save whispering something dirty in her ear). You may be surprised by how much you enjoy it if you let yourself. If, however, she really is too aggressive, the unfortunate truth is you might be incompatible. Carnal chemistry is as crucial to a successful relationship as good conversation, and sadly, one doesn’t guarantee the other. If bondage gets her going and you’d decidedly prefer your nipples unclamped, you may just not be right for each other.
Listen, we understand the importance of privacy – I’d sooner walk around pantless than let a guy listen in on Sunday brunch with my closest. When a woman checks your email, it isn’t because she needs you to share absolutely everything; it’s because she suspects something’s awry. That kind of tab-keeping is a sign of mistrust, and something only remedied by an open discussion. Ask your fiancée what’s motivating her monitoring. If you’ve truly nothing to hide, you’ll be able to put her fears to rest – and wrest control of your password while you’re at it.