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At Curious, things are curiously out of whack

Tru vet Laurel Khan makes a somewhat bumpy return to Chicago with "A Chef’s Playground."

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Update: Curious "A Chef's Playground" closed in mid-June, 1917.)

One early evening at Curious "A Chef's Playground," a friend gazed distantly out the window at the McDonald's across Chicago Avenue and began chanting like a devotee of Lord Krishna: "Filet-O-Fish-Filet-O-Fish-Filet-O-Fish . . . "

He was nervously awaiting the restaurant's own fillet of fish, which appeared on the menu as "Parmesan Crusted Whitefish, Lemon Dill Sauce, Gratin Potatoes & Veg—18." My pal predicted the experience would require a postprandial visit to the Mickey D's drive-through to obtain a proper Filet-O-Fish. That's because up until that moment there had been all sorts of grim, telltale signs about this restaurant from a former Tru vet, who'd gone on and made what appears to be a commendable career at a farm-to-table place called Mackinaw's in rural Chehalis, Washington.

For one thing, the first time I uttered the name of the restaurant where chef Laurel Khan chose to mark her return to Chicago, he cringed and immediately decided he'd hate it. Second, on the first night I coaxed him to join me, we were greeted by a locked door and a sign posted in the window saying that thenceforth the restaurant would be closed on Tuesdays. This had not been reflected on its Facebook page (and as of this writing still isn't), which is the only online platform Khan has chosen to publicly share the hours of operation and other important details about her business. Third, my friend dreaded the approach of his fish and the other dishes we ordered, because a large, round six-top next to us that had been occupied and abandoned sometime before we showed up remained cluttered with plates of half-eaten food long after we'd ordered our own. Meanwhile, the sole front-of-house staffer had returned to fill our water, including a top off on a fourth glass for an invisible companion who'd never touched it in the first place. The table remained uncleared long after we'd begun our own adventure with Khan's food.

He—let's face it, we—had little confidence in Curious.

Khan's menu is a bit of a day-to-day mystery too, since she changes it up quite often, adding some new dishes and scuttling others, following the loose dictates of her culinary doctrine as printed on the manila envelope the menu is delivered in: "Look forward to enjoying an everchanging menu, focusing on what's fresh and available during the season & adding her twist of whimsy to the Tastes of Our World . . . Adventures in Food!"

When a chef changes her menu every day, there are bound to be duds—disasters even. And I suffered a few on my visits to Curious, during which my companions and I were treated to the full attention of the chef and her sidekick in the front of the house, uninterrupted by the demands of any other customers.

A bowl of mussels and clams in a thick tomato sauce was mined with coins of andouille sausage that behaved more like supermarket hot dogs. A salad of mixed greens was drenched in a berry vinaigrette so sweet it deserves to go on a sno-cone. Crumbly sconelike wedges of giardiniera bread were punctuated here and there with bits of pickled vegetable too overwhelmed to express anything like their expected spicy character. A tub of cheese fondue was surrounded by cubes of the same bread, and pieces of the same alleged andouille dog. Duplication is a theme across Khan's menu: the same vegetable sides show up with different entrees; that bread appears again and again and again.

But then Khan has some successful, if odd, dishes that hit all the right notes in her professed metier of comfort food. There's a deconstructed chicken ravioli—really, a bowl of thick noodles, swimming in a lake of cream, with chunks of chicken and free-floating gobs of pesto-spiked ricotta—a sloppy, satisfying mess. There's a shepherd's pie, allegedly Brazilian in nature, filled with ground steak, corn, and roasted red peppers, with a crusty cheddar-cornmeal topping that's an appealing textural addition to the stewy innards. Fried green tomatoes are a firm, crispy, workmanlike but enjoyable effort, and a creamy New England-style clam chowder is a straightforward approach apart from the oversize hunks of potato that dominate the bowl. Beef shank, supposedly prepared in the style of a Jamaican curry, seemed unseasoned apart from salt, but its meat was meltingly tender and its savory juices saturated the rice in a most primally appealing way.

And then there's that fillet of fish, which to everyone's surprise was perfect: moist, flaky flesh jacketed by a cheesy brown crust. Who cares if the promised potato gratin was replaced by smashed sweet potatoes? At least we wouldn't be darkening the McDonald's drive-through.

I don't begrudge a chef who always strives to try something different, especially if it frequently leads to things as elementally satisfying as that fish. But there's too much else amiss at Curious to gamble on its small ratio of peculiar but winning dishes.   v

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