(Ruxbin Dining Room; All photos taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com)
Ruxbin is a fairly new BYOB restaurant located in the re-gentrifying Noble Square neighborhood of Chicago. It has already received some national acclaim as it was named one of Bon Appetit’s Top 10 restaurants of 2011. Chef/part owner Edward Kim has a fine dining background and trained at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City. The Ruxbin website lists his style as drawn from “French technique, [Chef Kim’s] Asian background, and bi-coastal gallivanting,” and that “Diner’s can expect American comfort punctuated with Kim’s Chicago-born, Le Cordon Bleu-trained, Korean American palate.”
The combination of comfort, approachability, and an eclectic mix of cuisines is a difficult mix to unify. The Noble Square neighborhood has a strong hipster identity, and I was curious to see how Ruxbin mediated the chef’s culinary style with the neighborhood vibe. The website’s multicultural description gestures toward hipster cuisine, which I think generally reflects elements of fusion cuisine. However, hipster cuisine is also known for combining junk food with higher-end/luxury ingredients. For example, a hipster dish might take a hamburger and top it with foie gras, or take popcorn and coat it in truffle oil, like the famous popcorn formerly served at Graham Elliott. I am generally not a fan of this kind of cuisine, and I also don’t care for the apathetic attitude that I associate with the hipster personality cult. Nevertheless, Chef Kim’s culinary pedigree and the restaurant’s fast-growing acclaim ensured that the restaurant was worthy of a visit.
Ruxbin has a somewhat eclectic design, although it was not out of place in the neighborhood. The decorating concept—both inside and outside—emphasizes “found” items, and the space is long and narrow and feels very similar to an old-fashioned diner car. The website states: “Time periods and materials flair together with the Refurbished, Repurposed, and Reclaimed. Vintage and salvaged compositions furnish every surface of the dining room.” This certainly created the expectation for a very hipster-inflected environment. However, the décor reflected a very passionate enthusiasm for gastronomy, with images cut out from culinary magazines on the walls and a wide variety of cookbooks—from The Chez Panisse Cookbook to the Alain Ducasse cookbook to The 60 Minute Gourmet—lining the bookshelves near the kitchen. The Ruxbin website also has its own blog, underscoring their culinary enthusiasm. I appreciated the way the restaurant took the hipster emphasis on “found” items and channeled it toward restaurants, thereby replacing hipster apathy with culinary zeal.
Ruxbin does not take reservations and when we arrived at 6:00, there was already a 1 hour, 45 minute wait for a table. However, we sat at the communal table, where there was no wait to be seated. Since the kitchen was backed up, we waited 30 minutes before placing our order, although this was not a problem since the front of house was very up front about the wait and the communal table offered an interesting view of the action in the kitchen. An additional benefit was that for the first hour or so of our meal, there was nobody else at the communal table. The view from our table is below, and the man on the right is Chef Kim:
We had a terrific view of the kitchen operating and could easily see the vegetable cooler. It is visible in the picture above, located below the counter on which the plates are placed for delivery. One of my main inspirations for ordering the Frog and Snail was that I could visibly see the white asparagus in the cooler. I have never dined in a restaurant where the vegetable cooler is in plain sight, although it injected color into an otherwise dark ambience. As one can see, the location for the communal table is quite interesting; open kitchens are by no means unusual, but this was different since it situates the diner so that they are directly facing the kitchen. It is a very unusual dynamic: it is visible enough so as to be impossible to ignore, yet the doors separating the kitchen make it so that it is clearly segregated and not integrated within the dining room. The closest comparison I can make is to a deli counter, except instead of standing in front of the counter, we were about 10 feet away. Although he is not visible in the picture, there is one member of the kitchen staff who serves as an expediter, and he is the only member of the kitchen team who interacts with the diners and acknowledges the space beyond the kitchen. He operates within a spatial plane that represents an interstitial space, in front of the kitchen yet segregated from the dining room. The window opening into the kitchen is a sort of proscenium and it feels as though one is sitting in the front row of a movie theater. However, the activity is fairly mundane and, as one can see from the picture, there is no attraction that qualifies as a spectacle. Because of this, it is perhaps a blessing that the kitchen is not more integrated within the dining room. The end result is a sort of naked transparency.
The menu had just been updated for the spring season. I was surprised by its size; there were 6 starters and 6 main dishes listed, as well as one special, a salmon crudo appetizer. Due to the small size of the kitchen, the starters are delivered to the table as soon as they are cooked, so it is expected that the starters are to be shared, similar to the structure at Avec in Chicago. The entrees are delivered at the same time. My companion and I selected the Frog and Snail and the Octopus as starters. I ordered the Amish Chicken for a main dish, while my friend chose the Beef and Broccolini Hanger Steak.
Instead of a bread service, Ruxbin supplies popcorn, which they accent with salt, seaweed powder, and sesame. The popcorn wasn’t especially impactful, although I think this was due to underseasoning rather than the combination of ingredients. It was an instance where the long list of ingredients created the expectation for a burst of flavor that never materialized. Still, it was a good example of Ruxbin’s blending of contemporary American comfort food and foreign cuisines.
The first of the starters to arrive was the Frog and Snail. This was a seasonally appropriate dish, with frog legs, snails, garlic scapes, lemon confit, roasted garlic, and compound butter. The butter and lemon confit were a familiar combination (one that I have always enjoyed in mussel dishes) and made the dish quite pungent. However, there was a contrast between the aggressive scent and the conservative flavor profile and composition, as there was a lack of textural contrasts. While the white asparagus and the snails were terrific, it would have been nice if the frog legs were meatier as this would have supplied some savory heft and counterbalanced the softness of the white asparagus.
The charred octopus was without a doubt my favorite dish of the evening. It is, of course, possible that its impact was accentuated by the fact that the impact of the previous course was muted, but at any rate the preparation was undeniably appealing. It was served grilled, with chickpeas, pickled radishes, grapes, black soybean, and ginger scallion vinaigrette. I’m not usually fond of chickpeas, although these were brittle and almost crunchy, as though they had been either grilled or roasted. This dish had an encyclopedia of flavors (smoky, savory, sweet, and acidic) and textures that complemented each other in surprising ways. If the chickpeas had been soft and chewy (the way I am accustomed), I never would have enjoyed the dish, but I appreciated the way they supported the octopus.
While waiting for our main dishes, the expediter, Nate, came out from his perch behind the counter and chatted with us. The kitchen had just finished their spring break, in which they went to northern California and New York City, and he mentioned a dinner at Le Bernardin in New York as a highlight of the trip. He had a zealous energy and was happy to discuss the restaurant. We asked about the possibility of a tasting menu, and Nate hinted that a tasting menu would require a separate venture. I appreciate that Ruxbin is very aware of how a restaurant has to communicate directly with its audience. The Noble Square demographic would not likely be receptive toward a tasting menu, and the kitchen clearly understands this. While I personally believe that tasting menus reflect a more ambitious scope, Ruxbin pushes the limits of how much ambition can be contained within an a la carte structure. Instead of a tasting menu where each of the dishes benefits from their interaction with the other courses, every menu item at Ruxbin contains enough interesting flavor and texture contrasts that a tasting menu is not necessary. The kitchen is very creative, challenging dominant preparation methods (the chickpeas, for example) and destabilizing the boundaries separating different cuisines.
My main course arrived in an unusual square plate that may have compromised its aesthetics. There were a number of different components: a chicken breast and leg, red pearl onions, brussel sprouts, brussel sprout leaves, and pain perdu with apple, gouda and walnuts. The portion size was quite large and the plate very small, and this forced the kitchen to stack the food into a big pile. Still, while it looks messy, the plating was (paradoxically) quite manicured, and I actually watched Nate place the brussel sprout leaves with precision. It would be appropriate to say that the dish looked like a very intentionally-assembled mess.
It was difficult to harmonize all of the components since there was a clear divide between sweet and savory. Although it was filled with gouda and walnuts, the pain perdu was still very sweet and didn’t mix successfully with the chicken. Instead, the chicken went well with the brussel sprouts and pearl onions, and I basically consumed it first and had the pain perdu as a separate pre-dessert course. Our server stated that the dish was inspired by the classic staple of chicken and waffles, although this seems unfathomable. Where chicken and waffles is served with Belgian waffles, the pain perdu was very soft and unable to integrate with the chicken as successfully as a firm and thick Belgian waffle. Given all of the activity within the dish, the brussel sprout leaves were perhaps an unnecessary garnish, although they did contribute a welcome splash of green that contrasted with the dish’s otherwise beige aesthetic.
There were two dessert options: fried hand pie filled with pear and served with gorgonzola ice cream, and a chocolate pot de crème topped with bacon cotton candy. I chose the hand pie while my companion went with the pot de crème. I had been pleased that the menu had resisted the foodie/hipster emphasis on elevated junk food up until this point, so it was somewhat disappointing to see that both desserts were basically upscale variations on two carnival staples—fried dough and cotton candy. The server stated that the hand pie was a variation of a traditional cheese and fruit course, although I cannot imagine that anyone would recognize this allusion since the dish had the potent and unmistakable smell of fried dough. The ratio of dough to pear also veered heavily toward the former, which resulted in a very greasy end to the meal, and I found the gorgonzola ice cream to be overwhelming. There was also a red wine caramel drizzled throughout, although it was almost completely negated by the potency of the other components.
Although I did not try it as I don’t like cotton candy, my companion similarly felt that his dessert was overly heavy and contained an aggressive mix of flavors that didn’t harmonize. At this point in the meal, a group of three had arrived at the communal table and they were very impressed with the appearance of this dessert:
While waiting for the check, Nate came back out and asked us what we thought of the desserts. After hearing our impressions, he did mention that they are working on some new options, so it will be interesting to see whether new desserts appear in the near future.
Having now dined at Ruxbin, I can certainly understand why it has generated considerable acclaim. The multicultural cuisine and emphasis on upscale American comfort food gesture toward hipster cuisine. However, the chef’s fine dining background and Asian heritage give his cross-cultural focus a strong theoretical grounding that legitimizes his approach. Ruxbin is a rare restaurant in that the menu is both comfortable and unfamiliar; most restaurants simply don’t utilize unfamiliar flavor combinations and it was refreshing to be presented with a menu filled with novel preparations. While I did not get a sense that separate courses really supported each other or benefited through their interaction, every dish felt like its own separate project and they each had enough contrasting elements that it would actually be possible to have a rewarding experience even after only ordering one course. Ruxbin is a worthy rubric through which to observe the tensions that currently surround restaurant reception (especially in Chicago), particularly the blending of democratic and canonically prestigious culinary styles. As Chicago’s more casual culinary landscape continues to clash with Michelin’s preference for more recognizably “high” culture cuisine, it will be interesting to see whether Ruxbin is canonized with a star in this year’s Michelin guide.