For our second shot at Restaurant Week, I went a bit outside of my usual philosophy of trying restaurants that I otherwise couldn't afford and booked us a table at BellyQ, the newest restaurant in the Bill Kim restaurant empire. Kim is probably the biggest name in Asian fusion cuisine in Chicago, starting with UrbanBelly in Avondale, followed by BellyShack in Logan Square, and finally BellyQ in the far West Loop. I'd been reading a lot of hype about his newest, Asian barbeque-focused venture, and even though it wasn't necessarily too expensive, I just hadn't yet mustered the motivation to give it a try. After all, I had a relatively mediocre experience at BellyShack, where Kim's Latin/Asian fusion didn't particularly inspire my palate.
Still, I was willing to give him another try, especially because BellyQ was reputed to be a much bigger space than his other two eateries, enough so that they take reservations, and it's easy to get to, unlike his other spots. Plus, one glance at BellyQ's Restaurant Week menu was enough to seal the deal. They weren't skimping -- all of their most notable dishes were represented, and their dessert as listed as a Vietnamese cinnamon donut with caramel dipping sauce. Need I say more?
Though I felt much more at ease at BellyQ, I wasn't blown away by my experience there. It seemed more like the kind of place Justin and I would go, and the kind of food that Justin and I often eat, but I didn't feel like they were doing anything especially innovative that distinguishes them from any other Asian fusion restaurant in the city. Don't get me wrong, the food was perfectly good, delicious even, I just didn't feel like there was anything unique that I couldn't find elsewhere, and with Bill Kim at the helm, I was expecting more from BellyQ.
Ambiance - Honestly, I was a little confused by the BellyQ space. It didn't feel as vast and impersonal as I'd seen it described in reviews, and there even warm touches, like the whimsical light fixtures, to break up the otherwise industrial space. I was, however, taken aback by the extremely uncomfortable seating. The metal chairs may have looked nice, but they were so unyielding that I couldn't shake the feeling that the restaurant didn't want us to linger a moment more than necessary over our food. Also, the place was completely packed; Nellcôte was the same way. I'm not sure if this has to do with both restaurants' high-profile trendiness, or if it was just because Restaurant Week is doing its job by bringing more people out in the cold months of February. Perhaps it is a combination of both factors.
Service - Our waitress was extremely friendly, and really seemed to take an interest in us. We mentioned that we had walked to the restaurant (which was probably a mistake, as it was freezing out and much farther away from my office than I had anticipated), and she made good on her promise to make the meal worth our effort. However, I couldn't overlook the fact that she kept trying to upsell us into additional side dishes and upgrades to our Restaurant Week dishes.
For example, our dessert was apparently intended to be served with Bill Kim's famous soft-serve, but it was omitted in the Restaurant Week version. For a modest additional charge, she suggested that it would be so much better with the ice cream, but we demurred. She did manage to talk us into trying the house-made kimchi, but I was annoyed that there was a charge for what should really be a free condiment.
Food - For me, our dinner got off to an excellent start with the Thai fried chicken. I really liked the spicy sweet glaze, even if it made them very messy, and their crunchy coating. I also appreciated the fact that they were boneless, which meant that you could eat them with a fork, thereby cutting down on the amount of sauce that ended up on my fingers. However, part of me feels that once you have experienced Crisp, the Korean fried-chicken restaurant on Broadway that Justin and I fell in love with a couple years back. Their chicken is so good that it has ruined me for all other Asian-inspired fried chicken, which is unfortunate, given that it is a burgeoning food trend. Justin, who wasn't feeling well, had their hot and sour lentil soup, which was much brothier than either of us expected, and he didn't seem especially impressed by it.
He had the salmon for a main course, and seemed to enjoy it , though I think he was sad that he didn't get the barbeque grilled beef that I had. Barbeque may seem like a bit of a misnomer, since BellyQ doesn't deal in the smoked, heavily-sauced version that most Americans associate with the term, but rather in Asian-style barbeque, which is marinated and flavored differently. Though I more or less detest American-style BBQ, I like its Asian counterpart, and I thoroughly enjoyed the version served at BellyQ. The meat was flavorful, though a bit tough, and it was especially good when eaten with the lettuce salad and rice that came on the side. Something about the vinaigrette paired perfectly with the flavor of the beef.
The donuts, as expected, were terrific. Soft and pillowy, hot and crispy, they were excellent on their own, but even better doused in the gently salted caramel sauce. Even without the ice cream, I thought they were great, and I probably could have been happy if we had just come there for dessert.