Sunda

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Photograph: Heather Shouse
Sunda
River North
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There are two ways to evaluate Sunda, the new hot-stuff, pan-Asian, megarestaurant from the Rockit Ranch crew. The first (and the method most likely for hard-core chowhounds who favor flavor over flash) is to compare every dish to its cheaper, seemingly more authentic version found in humbler surroundings around town. Don’t. What you’d find is that the skin of Sunda’s soup dumplings turns to mush and can’t contain its pork broth like those in Chinatown; that the pork belly steamed buns are heavy on the bun and light on the pork; and that the “Thai fried chicken” is indeed juicy but suffers from a modernized coconut crust and doesn’t pack nearly as much flavor as the kai thawt at a half-dozen Thai dives. A meal spent making these comparisons takes all the fun out of dining at Sunda, the one opening in recent memory that’s so excessive in scope, stature and style that it might as well tack on the tag line “Recession be damned.”

So throw caution to the wind, prepare to drop some dough, and soak up a night out of people-watching (peppered with minor celebrity spottings) and fun, flavorful food—provided you order correctly. First tip: Don’t come for the sushi. Sure, it’s fresh stuff and tempting enough what with the glowing sushi bar stationed under floating fish forms fashioned by notable designer Tony Chi. But it’ll do serious damage to your wallet ($8 for two pieces of yellowtail nigiri), and you can get straight-up raw fish elsewhere. Instead, focus on what you can’t get elsewhere: Crispy rice sushi is a signature of “the food Buddha” (a.k.a. exec chef Rodelio Aglibot, best known for his similar celeb spot Koi in L.A.). Lightly vinegared sushi rice is formed for nigiri, its base gets dipped in a soy glaze, then it’s pan-seared until crispy and topped with spicy tuna tartare. Genius. Ditto for the rectangular blocks of watermelon topped with unagi “bacon” (thin, crispy, salty-sweet slices of eel), impossibly tender strip steak formed into “lollipops” around lemongrass skewers, gluttonous shrimp toasts that serve as a base for slathering on spicy tuna “jam,” and a salad of salty, crispy-skinned duck meat, cubes of polenta-like daikon cake, frisée and fried egg. Actually, aside from an undercooked, mushy-bodied softshell crab dish, these starters make it nearly impossible for entrées to compete. From underseasoned, mild-flavored lamb loin to dry confit pork shank saved only by an incredible foie-thickened dipping sauce, they’re underwhelming across the board. So make a meal out of small plates, wash them down with linger-inducing Riesling or wheat beers, and cross “Eat at Sunda” off your to-do list.

Venue name: Sunda
Contact:
Address: 110 W Illinois St
Chicago

Cross street: between Clark and LaSalle Sts
Opening hours: Mon-Wed 11:30am-3pm, 5-11pm, Thurs-Fri 11:30am-3pm, 5pm-12am, Sat 10:30am-2:30pm, 4pm-12am, Sun 10:30am-11pm
Transport: El stop: Red to Grand; Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart. Bus: 22, 65, 156.
Price: Average main course: $22
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