3053 north california avenue
chicago, il 60618
not two weeks after our previous trip to chicago, carrie and i headed north once again (this time in our new ct200 hybrid) for a one night trip that would include three michelin stars and a visit to the metro theatre to see one of my long standing favorite bands (thrice) play a sold out show with an excellent supporting cast. after breezing through the drive in about five hours, our first stop was chef bill kim's urban belly. kim, who has worked under chicago legend charlie trotter at his eponymous restaurant, opened the fast-casual urban belly in 2009. serving pan-asian cusine, urban belly was named to travel+leisure's list of 2009's best new restaurants, and also received a bibb gourmand award in the 2011 chicago michelin guide.
walking into the empty restaurant just past 4pm on a wednesday, we were quickly greeted by a very enthusiastic young woman who explained the set up to us. at urban belly, you place your order at the counter, pay, and they find a seat at one of the four ten seat communal tables. the menu is made up of four categories (dumplings, rices, noodles, sides) and while no alcoholic beverages are sold, urban belly has a byob policy. having viewed the menu online prior to our visit, we quickly selected one item from each category, and found a seat at the end of one of the long tables. before i get going on the food, i want to state up front that i am out of my element here. while i do enjoy asian cuisines, i do not have them often enough nor do i really know much about them. this is something i am looking to rectify in the coming months.
first to arrive was the beef short rib and scallion rice. both the rice and meat were tasty enough, but this dish would have been much easier to eat had the short rib meat been cut from the bone prior to being served.
delivered shortly after the rice was the selection i was most excited about. shown above are the lamb and brandy dumplings. these were definitely my favorite part of the meal, with the savory lamb meat and subtle but ever present brandy flavor being a wonderful combination. i could have easily eaten the whole plate myself.
with the dumplings devoured and the plate cleared away, our order of urban belly ramen with shiitake mushrooms, pork belly, and pho broth arrived. while the pork belly was a bit lacking to me (although given the price certainly not bad), the broth was incredible. pho is not something i am very familiar with, and the rich combination of flavors and spices really did it for me.
arriving with the ramen was our side order of wrinkle beans. i had read that these were a must order at urban belly, but found them disappointing. maybe we got a bad batch or something, but carrie and i both found the texture (not enough crunch) and overpowering garlic flavor off putting and only had a few bites each.
writing this review a week after our meal, i am still not sure how to rate my experience. i went in with pretty lofty expectations, and because of that left slightly disapointed. there were some definite highs and lows, but as a whole the food was mostly successful, just not mind blowing. what i can say for sure is that urban belly did open my eyes a bit to some new types of food, and for that i am grateful. i doubt i will find myself at urban belly again as it is a bit out of the way, but i would not rule out a quick bite at bill kim's bucktown eatery belly shack sometime in the future.