One quiet evening in Yum Cha not long ago two Asian women—veritable little old ladies—sat for hours in a dim alcove daintily chopsticking rice from bowls held up to their chins. That's the kind of eater you look for when you walk into a restaurant: one who looks like she knows what she's doing
But take that for what it's worth. There was also a pair of seemingly unrelated tables each occupied by Sikhs scarfing down things like chow fun and beef with broccoli. They were miles away from Chinatown, tucked under the towers on a shelf of skyscrapers on the edge of the city, overlooking Millennium Park to the south, the sunken Lake Shore East Park to the north, and Michigan Avenue just to the west, nearly three miles north of the cavernous dim sum halls of Archer Avenue.
This is the spot where chef Rodelio Aglibot has alighted to present his particular take on upscale Cantonese. That isn't so strange. The Peninsula's Shanghai Terrace has been doing fancy dim sum just off the Magnificent Mile for years. The rent is higher and so are the prices, but maybe the clientele is less likely to complain about them.
When we last heard from Aglibot, who wants people to call him "the Food Buddha," he was serving up everything from tacos to pizza to Filipino adobo pork belly at Mount Prospect's Earth + Ocean. Before that he was the ballyhooed opening chef at Sunda, responsible for things like watermelon-and-eel salad and nigiri topped with potato chips.
There's nothing that troubling on the menu at Yum Cha—perhaps due to the sobering influence of Eddy "Chi Ping" Cheung of Chinatown's venerable Phoenix restaurant, who consults on staff training. But there is a sort of duality (schizophrenia?) to the menu, which, while not as encyclopedic as your typical Cantonese restaurant's, is still fairly long and varied. You have your dim sum menu, featuring some 54 individual snacks, and then a greatly expanded general dinner menu with beef, poultry, pork, seafood, and vegetable dishes, plus soup, noodles, and rice. Lunchtime is primarily dim sum time, with rolling carts distributing the more traditional and presumably more durable snacks, plus an abbreviated version of the dinner menu.
If you're particularly interested in Aglibot's take on Cantonese, you'll want to pay heed to the dishes marked with the little pink lotus symbol (those are made to order, too precious to roll around the dining room, I guess). Ignore them if you're interested in a more straightforward, Phoenix-like style. But by all means mix it up if you want to compare, say, the cart's perfectly acceptable traditional lo bak koh—a crispy-soft, panfried daikon radish sheet cake—to Aglibot's modern version on the menu, which consists of sweetly glazed chunks of the cake tossed with sliced lotus root and topped with a molten poached egg.
That egg exemplifies much of the chef's approach to dim sum: topping traditional dishes with en vogue ingredients more often employed in Western-leaning restaurants. That's why you'll see the familiar egg tarts—flaky cups of pastry cradling warm sweet custard—capped with a bird turd's worth of liquefied foie gras. They come without liver too, for $8 less.
Aglibot garnishes chicken sui mai, those firm, wrinkly, open-topped dumplings, with tiny slices of black truffle that neither smell nor taste trufflelike at all. These too sell for an $8 upcharge over the standard tobiko-topped chicken-and-mushroom sui mai. It must be this same odorless, tasteless truffle that's promised again in a small cup of duck jus that accompanies a few pieces of crispy-skinned roasted duck—which is just under a quarter of the cost of the restaurant's two-course whole Peking duck service (which includes no "truffle").
There are other bites with Aglibot's imprint that are a little more original, like a bone luge filled with a sorely underseasoned oxtail hash served with spongy stuff-your-own bao. And on the sweeter side, there are battered and deep-fried lengths of coconut pudding meant to be dipped in berry and chocolate sauces.
In general—and with the exception of an extraterrestrially aqua-blue kale-and-squash-stuffed dumpling that tastes like Moosewood Does Dim Sum—the assorted dumplings at Yum Cha are expertly constructed, bulging, securely wrapped, and occasionally finished to good effect, such as a seared oxtail-stuffed pot sticker topped with a gob of bitter ginger-scallion pesto. Most significantly, Yum Cha's xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, are marked with Aglibot's sigil on the menu, but they don't appear to have been gussied up at all. They're simply very well-made pork purses that hold together all the way up to the crucial bite and slurp.
Approach the lengthy dinner menu as you would most any Cantonese menu: most things are going to be fine, if a little boring, some things will be exceptional, and some things will ruin your day. It takes time to figure them out. Right now I know Aglibot's pressed duck is in the last category, a yurt of frazzled, deep-fried taro concealing gray shreds of dried bird surrounded by a gloppy sauce swimming with penile straw mushrooms. Dry asparagus with salted egg turns out to be nothing more complicated than a pile of battered and fried spears, something like the healthy option at the state fair. "Fancy" scrambled eggs with shrimp are exactly what they sound like: big soft curds enveloping snappy, sweet shrimp, as lush and moist as the meat in a dried-out oxtail fried rice is desiccated and gnarled.
It's a crap shoot at Yum Cha at the moment. Servers don't seem completely up to speed on the sprawling menu, half of which is no more exceptional than what you'd find at Phoenix (not that there's anything wrong with Phoenix). In time, though, Yum Cha might better reveal its strengths. Keep your eye out for little old ladies.