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Pluses and minuses at e+o

The Food Buddha of Sunda fame opens Earth + Ocean in the 'burbs.



If the awful woman who gives voice to Google Maps said "Turn left to remain on Randhurst Village Drive" one more time as we dizzied ourselves driving around the shopping center's parking lot, I would have climbed into my phone and slapped her silly. Should I be embarrassed that I was using Google Maps to navigate a parking lot? Yeah, probably. In my defense, it's an enormous shopping complex—and I don't find myself in big, outdoor shopping malls much since relocating to Chicago from the south, the proud capital of suburban sprawl. Plus, our destination, Earth + Ocean (e+o) Food and Drink, was hidden between a motel driveway and an AMC megaplex.

"A suburban oasis" is I guess how you could describe e+o. I'm actually surprised they don't enlist that phrase on their website, considering the rest of the site is very industry-speak. For instance: "Earth and Ocean (e+o) food and drink is a lifestyle-inspired restaurant. Through our cuisine, hospitality, and decor, we will cultivate an enduring relationship with each guest and surrounding communities."

I'm not exactly sure what "lifestyle-inspired" means. I should have asked our waitress, a sweet lady who gently explained to us that if we hadn't dined with them before, we could expect "New American cuisine." It sounded perfectly benign coming from her, but terms like "New American" generally get under my skin because they mean so very little. It's an antidescriptor. I think the good-food future is heading toward specifics.

If she wanted to make sure we were prepared for our experience, she could have filled us in on the "offering," a tiny plate of marinated mushrooms and olives on a bed on shredded red cabbage that was placed on our table by an underwaiter with the explanation "Here is your offering for the evening." OK, fiiiine. I guess it's not any less pretentious to call it an amuse-bouche, but it made me and my dining companion roll our eyes. (Meanwhile, I say things like "dining companion.") It was a joke for the rest of the weekend, a monotone "Here is your offering for the evening."

At the helm in the kitchen is Rodelio Aglibot, better known as the "Food Buddha" of Sunda New Asian. I wonder if he shouldn't stick to Asian food. The large menu at e+o includes Asian-inspired "Signature Dishes," global grilled foods, sushi rolls, raw seafood options, varied small plates, pasta, pizzas—a real effort to please anyone who might stumble through the door. My dining companion happens to be vegetarian and there were options to accommodate her. But they were all vaguely Italian (pastas, pizzas) and unfortunately not very good.

She started with the ricotta-spinach dumplings, which reminded me of the microwavable spinach lasagna from Trader Joe's you eat when you're between paychecks or experiencing a bout of self-loathing. Her entree, the gnocchi with brown butter, bechamel, and pesto, was equally tasteless. I didn't detect any brown butter or bechamel, really. Just an average pesto sauce on doughy little balls.

I stuck to the dishes with the little plus signs next to them (chef specialties) and everything was at least marginally better. The spicy tuna on crispy rice would have been good if the raw fish hadn't been the consistency of mush; the sticky little rice cakes the tuna sat atop—seared on each side in soy sauce—were a nice platform. My entree, the Filipino adobo-style pork belly, was another dish that almost worked. The pork belly itself was beautifully seared, with a nice golden crust. But the crust of the pork belly made it impenetrable to the brothy sauce. It was one of those sad situations where a dish smells better than it tastes.

The standout was the crispy brussels sprouts and kale appetizer, even if it was a little skimpy on brussels sprouts. The tiny bits of fried kale were tufts of slightly nutty, bitter air, and everything—including bits of cold, meaty, minced shrimp—was tossed in a sesame oil vinaigrette that kicked the back of your tongue just right.

An appetizer worthy of a trip to the suburbs? Maybe. Just bring a compass for the parking lot.

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