"Do you know who any of these people are?" a manager asked my small group as we stood in the karaoke room at BellyQ waiting to be seated in the dining room. He was referring to a series of portraits on the wall featuring popular local chefs dressed up as their preferred "alter egos."
We played dumb and he proceeded to point them out. There was Stephanie Izard with an inflatable guitar as Slash. There was Nellcote/Old Town Social's Jared Van Camp as Pitbull. John Manion from La Sirena Clandestina played Joe Cocker and the Publican's Brian Huston was some species of Bears fan.
Finally he pointed out BellyQ's chef Bill Kim clutching a skateboard as—I don't know—Daewon Song? BellyQ is the largest of Kim's three restaurants to date, and as such he has room to indulge in goofy portraits of himself and his pals. This space was once One Sixtyblue, and the investment that comes with partnering up with Michael Jordan and Cornerstone Restaurant Group can make that sort thing happen. Number 23 had his own Delmonico steak on One Sixtyblue's menu, after all. That sort of egocentrism plays well for the tourists at Michigan Avenue steak houses, but now that chefs are the new NBA stars Randolph Street's BellyQ is entirely about Kim.
"Tradition. Amplified." That's the slogan coined for this nominal Korean barbecue restaurant from Kim, the former fine-dining chef (Trotter's, Le Lan) who was among the first in his class to downshift to a humbler, fast-casual environment, first with his pan-Asian noodle shop Urban Belly and then the pan-Asian street food concept Belly Shack.
I am among an extremely small minority who were unimpressed by both places, largely by what I felt was a reckless, caricatured application of Asian flavors.
At BellyQ, it's just the opposite. There is nothing amplified about this food. Anyone with a minimum of experience with basic, traditional Korean cooking will find these flavors restrained, inoffensive, and muted. The most glaring example comes in the house-made cabbage kimchi served in small dishes, as at all three of Kim's restaurants. Glistening with oil and spiked with wedges of fresh radish and a touch of fennel, it bears none of heat or funk of properly bracing, fermented kimchi. And yet it is startlingly fresh.
There's the paradox of Kim's food. The quality of ingredients and the manner in which they're presented are significantly finer than you'll encounter at a standard Korean barbecue joint. It's all finesse and no muscle.
Take a trio of "tea-smoked meats" that command their own page on the menu: a pork steak, a duck breast, and lamb ribs, prepared in a much-hyped "Chinese water smoker." These are gorgeous pieces of meat, served with sweet steamed buns—a la Peking duck—and a trio of house-made sauces. The duck breast in particular, served on a bed of Chinese broccoli and sprinkled with a freshening application of lemon zest, is crispy—but bears not a whiff of the tea leaves it's said to be smoked with. Same for the fall-off-the-bone lamb ribs; between that relatively strongly flavored meat and sticky-sweet barbecue sauce, you wonder why the kitchen troubles with tea at all.
There's also a small offering of grilled meats and the option to sear them yourself at a handful of booths equipped with electric burners and exhaust fans, which is how BellyQ gets away with associating itself with Korean barbecue. But their inclusion—like the karaoke room—is almost cosmetic. Their small portion sizes relative to cost ($18-$20) and the fact that there are only three dishes available to be cooked at table (the lemongrass chicken is always cooked by the kitchen, for fear you'll do yourself in by undercooking it) make it unlikely BellyQ can inspire the sort of primal, gluttonous fire party that can be had at San Soo Gap San or Hai Woon Dae.
The more traditional of these—Korean short ribs and sweet marinated shreds of beef shoulder—are among the most tender I've tried. The short ribs, in fact, are almost too tender—fatty beef sheaths slide off the bone like meat jello, with no dentition required. Bite-size slices of fatty salmon arrive on a rectangle of banana leaf, and you'll eat them in less time than it takes them to cook. Getting set up for this exercise calls for more effort than the execution does. Save yourself the trouble. There's always the option to order them cooked by the kitchen.
Mechanically speaking, it's unclear how one is supposed to eat these dishes. Each comes with a small side salad in place of the thin, cross-sectional sheets of daikon or red leaf lettuce traditionally used as the vehicle from hand to mouth. They are accompanied by a bowl of rice and three of Kim's signature sauces, but how the whole package fits together remains a mystery.
Those sauces are the exception to everything I've said so far about Kim's taming of traditionally bold flavors. He's doing us all a favor by bottling these, particularly the sweet soy-and-balsamic-based "Seoul Sauce" and a powerfully spicy and smoky "Belly Smoke." These are available for sale in takeout operation BQ2Go, in the rear of the restaurant.
Kim's second major riff on classic Korean is his trio of rice-flour pancakes cooked on the wood-burning oven inherited from One Sixtyblue—and the pancakes are just as inharmonious as the barbecue. These are modeled on the infinite variety of pancake known as jeon, but instead of the amorphous, chewy ideal they are perfectly circular, denser and drier, and are topped with their individual ingredients rather than having them mixed into the batter. Goat cheese and long strands of fried rice noodles or kimchi and bacon are piled on top with nothing to hold them in place, offering a three-dimensional but ultimately awkward munch.
Elsewhere on the menu are a few salads—including a vinegary soba noodle with olive-oil poached shrimp, Thai basil, and Chinese eggplant (not unlike a particular dish at Belly Shack)—as well as a few little bites and vegetable sides, such as a pair of battered, fried, boneless chicken thighs in a wet, sticky-sweet Thai-style sauce and a trio of dashi-based tofu "hot pots." These are really just big bowls of soup, not unlike Korean soondubu, brimming with clouds of soft tofu and thick with seafood, kimchi and bacon, or vegetables. For dessert a trio of complicated vanilla soft-serve sundaes are incorporated with, say, huckleberries and basil seeds or coconut jelly and passion fruit.
The beverage program is designed by the talented Peter Vestinos, who rarely fails to meet the challenges set before him. Four wines on tap, ten sakes, a few shochus, and other straight spirits compete against a short cocktail list that looks cloying and oversweet on paper, but in execution yields some dramatically good drinks. A shochu-based Serpentine cocktail spiked with coconut vinegar and salty Japanese plum and a pastis, aloe, and celery soda number called the Thermador are surprisingly complex, grown-up beverages.
All of this goes down in a loud, cafeterialike atmosphere with an open kitchen and an unvarnished industrial interior that echoes the desperate grasp at street credibility on display at Belly Shack. Thankfully there's less of that overearnest attitude on display at BellyQ—but alas, the menu suffers from a similar lack of seriousness.