Chrissy Camba has guts. The former Bar Pastoral chef and Top Cheftestant's menu at the new Laughing Bird features dishes containing whole chicken livers, strands of slippery beef tendon, pork rinds, kimchi-and-pork paté, and a saucy riff on dinuguan, a thick blood stew filled with pig innards that's sometimes referred to as "meat chocolate."
But that says nothing about the intestinal fortitude that led her to headline a mostly Filipino restaurant in the heart of Lincoln Square. In spite of the heroic leaps made by mainstream culinary culture in the last few decades—embracing marginalized cuisines from all over the world—restaurateurs have somehow skipped over the food of the Philippines, which is almost impossible to characterize given that the archipelago comprises more than 7,100 islands and takes from cuisines as diverse as Chinese, Spanish, and even American.
But there are more than 100,000 Filipinos in Illinois, most in Chicago, and if they choose to go out for the food of their homeland, there are more than 30 local restaurants to pick from. I have my favorites: homey, unpretentious, family-run joints like Ruby's Fast Food, Merla's Kitchen, Bacolod Chicken Haus, and Isla Pilipina. They're all in relatively far-flung neighborhoods and mostly cater to Filipinos only. Attempts to go big have so far been limited. Sunda features a handful of Filipino dishes on its menu, but its lack of focus makes it difficult to take anything there seriously. Kristine Subido's Pecking Order is well liked but almost too focused—mostly on chicken. On the whole, the food of the Philippines has yet to have its moment. It's hard to understand why no one has previously attempted a Fat Rice-style breakout with the cuisine, given its rough similarities to the syncretic food of Macau.
Laughing Bird seems like it's making a go at it, though Camba's menu isn't strictly Filipino. She's incorporated a little Japanese, Chinese, and Korean into her dishes, and she's bringing in the very earliest local produce and using it in ways that are sometimes a little unsettling. Take a burrata appetizer. The fragile, blobular cheese is teamed with a thick, sugary, caramelized-coconut jam and served with a few pieces of slightly sweetish pandesal ("salt bread") rolls—all of which makes sense. But then the ensemble is garnished with a pair of grilled green onions, whose char and pungency seem like pollutants on this otherwise sweet and creamy dish. Or look at a Japanese-style tonkatsu, a pounded and fried pork loin cutlet set atop a bed of saucy, pungent kimchi and plump Manila claims. This would be harmonious if not for the anise-y gusts rising from the incongruous fresh fennel fronds and roasted bulbs.
Attempts to brighten or contrast deeply funky flavors and challenging textures with delicate spring produce yield similarly unnerving results. A bowl of gelatinous beef tendon mounted on white mashed potatoes is given much-needed texture by fried garlic and shallots, but the copious garnish of fresh spring peas and watercress seems completely out of step with the dish, as do the same vegetables added to bland fried rice tossed with whole chicken livers. Subtle flavors are submerged, and crisp textures feel like anomalies—figurative flies in the soup.
Other dishes are less jarring but still problematic, showcasing an abundance of elements that inhibit the appreciation of the ones at center stage. A charred octopus dressed in the aforementioned dinuguan sauce is lost in the deep, livery intensity that also obviates the contribution of tender microgreens and crisp, fresh radishes. Some nicely broiled bluefish fillets set atop a fried cutlet of mashed sweet potato and surrounded by a hedgerow of grated daikon and pickled carrot are drowned in a broth made from beets. The first impulse is to rescue the fish.
Camba's most successful integrative foray is a charcuterie plate that manages to distinguish itself from the dozens of others that have appeared on every new restaurant menu. A smooth, rich chicken liver paté is garnished with savory-sweet cubes of amber-colored adobo aspic. Peking duck rillettes are enriched and sweetened with hoisin sauce. The grilled, kimchi-saturated pork paté is the embodiment of Korean chorizo. Together they're a reminder of the great work she did at Vincent.
All of this ambitious experimentation shouldn't distract from the fact that Camba's best dishes are those in which she goes all-in traditional Filipino, such as the pancit palabok, a generous heap of thick annatto-tinged rice noodles tossed with smoked mackerel, pork, shrimp, and boiled eggs. The dish has a multitude of winning textures. Her lechon kawali, on the other hand, has just two: a layer of glassine pork skin armoring luscious slices of fatty pork belly, the richness this time smartly cut by a side of tartly dressed watercress. As for her chicken adobo, "the national dish of the Philippines," it's cooked tenderly in vinegar and soy and served with plain jasmine rice, lightly pickled green papaya, and a bottle of Co-op Hot Sauce banana ketchup, and it's easy to see why Filipinos pine for it. The simple lumpia—crisply fried, cigar-shaped, densely pork-packed spring rolls—somehow come across as lighter than they should be. The classic halo halo, among three desserts, is an easy choice: a riotous icy sundae of purple yam ice cream, sweet mung beans, flan, shredded coconut, Rice Krispies, and palm jelly. The whole thing looks like a clown's head exploded.
It seemed like a more than modest number of Filipinos were eating at Laughing Bird on the occasions I visited. But given the scarcity of non-Asians, I'm not sure if it's going to be the great popularizer of Filipino food it seems to want to be. I wonder if Camba would do better to take fewer conceptual risks and go full-throttle Filipino.