Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
Four years ago, Chrissy Camba's charcuterie at Vincent was on the cover of Time Out Chicago as one of the 100 Best Things We Ate and Drank. Two years later, my predecessor David Tamarkin was hailing her pork rillettes at Bar Pastoral as the best in the city.
Now, Camba has opened her own restaurant, Laughing Bird in Lincoln Square, and I'm going to continue the praise: Camba's charcuterie is still the thing people are going to be talking about. Specifically, it's the Prepared Meats plate and, more specifically, the grilled kimchi-pork pate, basically a spicy sausage loaf that you can place on slices of sesame bread, or not. Who cares, as long as you're getting it into your mouth? Rounding out the meat plate are a pile of cucumber pickles, a perfectly smooth chicken liver pate that leans heavily on the cubes of adobo aspic and thick salt crystals sprinkled on top, and Peking duck rillettes, texturally perfect and sweet.
If you've gathered that this is not your typical Filipino restaurant, you're right.
Camba, who was most recently at Bar Pastoral and also had a stint on Top Chef, is of Filipino heritage, but she melds a range of influences into her cuisine. There's Filipino, sure, as in the chicken adobo, but there's also Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish and American flavors and techniques, with dishes like empanadas stuffed with oyster mushrooms and taleggio, and a burger with Furikake and bread and butter pickles.
There’s a lot going on, but if you just want straight Filipino food, you can find it. The chicken adobo is a must—it's a perfectly cooked half-chicken served with a scoop of jasmine rice and a pool of vinegar sauce. The dish is well-executed, but it's the bottle of banana ketchup, made with Co-Op Hot Sauce, that elevates it. The sauce is piquant and bright, and was, at times, the best thing on our table. That's because not everything at Laughing Bird is well-executed or refined. The pancit palabok, a classic Filipino noodle dish, is overcooked—the noodles were slumped over on the plate, while the mix of shrimp, chicharrons, smoked mackerel and pork was surprisingly flavorless. The barbecue pork meat sticks, a trio of skewers with thinly sliced pork, were also bland, and dry.
The problems continued into the cocktails, which were served with ice that instantly melted, washing away drinks like the mezcal-based Ahumado, with crème de mure (a blackberry liqueur), lime and Thai chilies. Luckily, there’s a small but excellent beer list, which skews local—Five Rabbit and Ale Syndicate are on draft, while Off Color, Arcadia and Half Acre are available by the bottle. Service could also use refining—we contemplated digging into our entrees with serving spoons since we weren’t given silverware, and a request for starter recommendations led to reading off the whole menu.
But despite the missteps, there’s promise at Laughing Bird. There’s clearly been thought put into the space, which is virtually unrecognizable from the previous tenant, Tank Sushi. There are dark gray walls, pink patterned booths and a brick wall with Laughing Bird’s logo painted on it, plus a small, pleasant seating area out front. And Camba has also obviously put a great deal of thought into the dishes. I liked the heaping pile of manila clams, soaking in an oyster sauce–laden broth along with wrinkled green beans, onions and thinly sliced serranos. Everything was perfectly cooked, and while the sauce was very sweet, I couldn’t resist sopping it up with sesame bread.
There are three desserts: a rhubarb crisp, s’mores cake and halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert that translates to “mix mix” and a perfect choice for a hot night. Served like a layered sundae, there’s shaved ice, purple yam ice cream, coconut strings, palm jellies, mung beans and a perfect cube of flan, among other ingredients. Mix it all up for an icy, colorful treat. There’s room for Laughing Bird to grow and refine, but in the meantime, if you order right, you can have a satisfying meal.
Update 9/2014: After 5 months, Camba announced via Facebook that she was closing and selling Laughing Bird. Stay tuned for her next move.