You know that feeling you get when you discover a great little indie band for the first time and every track sounds like it was written for you? Unknowingly, you take partial ownership of the group, turning every listening session into a small, mildly smug act of self-expression.
Restaurants can have the same effect, you know. At least, that’s how I felt about dining at Passerotto, which translates to “little bird” in Italian. Jennifer Kim’s (Snaggletooth) charming new restaurant is at once breezy and intensely felt, comfy yet dressed up. The Italian-influenced Korean-American cuisine is unique and wholly delicious, and the wine somehow elevates it further.
Inside, the brick-walled space with white penny-tile floors and exposed ducts feels like a stylish friend’s lived-in apartment. Two- and four-top tables with dusty-blue chairs line half the room, which is outfitted in quirky framed Japanese prints, succulents and digital weavings mingling with Kim’s family photos. A long bar offers seats on both sides, blurring the staff-customer barrier.
Delineated in both English and Korean, the single-page menu breaks out into composed raw proteins (hwe), little shareables (jom), noodles and rice (gooksoo and bap), and heftier platters for two (du myung). Lesser-known European wines dominate the beverage section, which I took as a sign to ask our server—who happened to be general manager/drinks architect Tegan Brace (Danke)—for pairing suggestions.
Of course, you can also spring for one of six easy-sipping beers or three cocktails on offer. Even the Coalmine’s Canary—a white negroni with gin, bergamot and a mouth-puckering whisper of Malört—manages to play nice with the food.
If you frequented Snaggletooth before its demise in 2017, you probably saw Kim trimming paper-thin slices of lustrous cured trout behind the glass display case. You can taste her seafood prowess once again here, most notably in the hwe section. Delicate bay scallops trembled beneath chive blossoms and dribbles of housemade XO sauce, an amalgam of dried fish, ‘nduja, chiles and brown sugar that elegantly walked the line between sweet and savory. Dabs of pungent onion puree coated our tongues in peanutty umami. The dish’s oceanic sweetness was mirrored by stony, honeyed French chenin blanc bubbles that flitted across my tongue.
In the balanced Honam tartare, mildly carnal lamb concealed a custardy cured egg yolk beneath a blanket of nutty Parmesan, next to fat spools of pickled cucumber and Asian pear that lent a bright crunch. We piled the lot on fried rice crackers dusted with black lime that I’d happily snack on like Funyuns.
If I see pasta on a menu, chances are I’ll order it and like it. Even so, trust when I say Kim’s housemade cavatelli is special—a becoming marriage of earthy central Italy and coastal Japan. Toothsome shells pooled in glistening, sea-kissed nori butter alongside long beans, wisps of fried sweet potato and bracing pickled shallots. The salty, lemony Austrian gruner veltliner we sipped magnified the dish’s gentle salinity.
That same wine cleaned our palates between spicy, smoky bites of charred shishitos tossed in garlicky doenjang bagna cauda and stacked over a cloud of smoked soft tofu and whipped ricotta.
Succulent kalbi short ribs provided the photogenic finale—the tough, fatty rib meat braised into submission then painted with sticky-sweet glaze and seared before Kim arranged the pieces atop their bone sections like corporeal artwork. We tucked the tender meat into minty shiso leaves with rice and spoonfuls of that night’s colorful banchan: sesame-scented bok choy, creamy Korean potato salad, spicy-savory pickled veggies, two kimchis and a requisite blob of sweet-nutty gochujang.
You’ll find just one dessert here: cantuccini, a soft cookie in the vein of once-baked biscotti. Packed with bitter lemon peel, tart cherries and almonds, a quick dip in the accompanying passito (Italian raisin wine that tastes like port) tamed its puckering elements, creating a harmonious last bite.
It betrays the honest-to-goodness collaboration going on at Passerotto to achieve that elusive, blissful equilibrium—knowing when to let certain ingredients sing a little louder, and appreciating the oft-overlooked power of subtlety. Spending a few hours in this lively ecosystem also left me hungrily wondering how Passerotto’s identity will evolve a year, or five, from now. I can’t wait to watch it unfold—as long as they don’t forget they were my restaurant way back when.
Atmosphere: It’s hard not to be charmed by this diminutive Andersonville eatery, where the menu blends ambrosial Korean flavors and hints of Italian influence with craveable results in an easygoing space.
What to eat: A hungry duo will be satisfied with a raw and small plate or two, noodle dish and a “for two,” like the luscious short ribs or braised pork belly. Don’t sleep on the housemade cavatelli or scallop crudo.
What to drink: Balanced, food-loving wines (all available by the glass and bottle for now) dominate the drink list, so ask for suggestions.
Where to sit: Request one of two tables along the front window for excellent Clark Street people-watching. Perimeter tables favor small groups, while the boisterous bar is great for dates.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.