Monday, August 19, 2013

Mott Street and the Lens of Asian Food Experience

“…flavors are as safe and unthreatening as a night on the couch with a bong.”  - Mike Sula, Chicago Reader in an article titled “Playing it Safe at Mott Street”
“…the cooking equivalent of driving 45 in a 55 mph speed zone.” – Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune

Chicago and other major cities have dozens of humble, first-generation-run Asian restaurants which, even though we Americans are welcome, are cooking food targeted mainly at fellow recent immigrants.  Because of this, and because so much of this food is cheap, there isn’t a food writer or aficionado in Chicago that hasn’t tried pungently fermented kimchi, scorchingly hot curry, and salads flavored with fishy funk. 

I think it’s through the lens of that experience that we end up with what I believe are misguided sentiments expressed in quotes such as the ones above.  Mott Street is “safe,” perhaps, when compared to the translated Thai-language menu at Sticky Rice.  But why compare it that instead of to restaurants with similar ambition, chef pedigree and price.? Are the dishes at Mott Street “safer” than those at Avec, La Sirena Clandestina, Le Bouchon or Vera?  Pang did compare Mott Street’s crab fried rice with Balena’s uni pasta, but that is even more bizarre and useless than comparing it to something one might find at TAC Quick.  Past experiences are valuable, but Mott Street is its own place and it would serve writers well to remove their lenses and evaluate the place on its own terms.

Some of the dishes at Mott Street are far from “safe”.  Grilled mackerel with incredible, crispy skin and moist flesh is served with head, tail and spine all attached – a bold decision that most restaurants with similar ambitions and customer bases would not make.  Wok-fried Gai Lan uses greens so intensely bitter that I’m sure many people refuse a second bite, along with oyster sauce that’s fishier and funkier than any version I can remember having.  Kimchi udon challenges safety-seeking palates with tiny bursts of fish roe and a delicious set of complementary garnishes.   I found all three of these dishes highly compelling. 
The kitchen at Mott street shows creativity too, which produces a winner and a loser.  The “stuffed cabbage” bears no resemblance to its moniker, but it is a fantastic combination of contrasting textures and bold flavors.  “Everything wings,” on the other hand, have a mess of bland seeds and a too-mild effort at tzatziki dipping sauce that would have paired poorly even had it been bolder.

I found the service at Mott Street welcoming and knowledgeable.  We had a drink and a snack on the nice patio and were made to feel like part of the crew.  In the dining room for dinner, everyone served us efficiently and with a smile, including members of management who stopped by a couple of times to check on things and solicit feedback.
We all have our own lenses through which we evaluate new restaurants.  Through mine, Mott Street is a winner.

Mott Street
(773) 687-9977
1401 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago IL 60622