Kim further boosted her credibility with a strong showing in the recently concluded "Top Chef: Texas" reality show, leading me to wonder if the Fairmont Chicago's Aria, a restaurant that to me has never lived up to its potential, might finally have the chef it needs.
Kim's Asian-accented food defies easy categorization. She'll knock out a row of pork-shiitake dumplings, perfectly traditional but for the cognac lurking in the hoisin sauce, then present cumin-seasoned, Mongolian-style lamb ribs alongside edamame-mint puree (a clever turn on the lamb-mint pairing). Mussels swim in international waters, i.e., an aromatic broth containing Japanese ale, Chinese five-spice and tomatillo chilies.
That old standby, tuna tartare, benefits from a fresh presentation; the dressed raw tuna arrives on a bed of avocado-jalapeno mousse, alongside a salad of shiso and compressed watermelon and curly, chicharron-style crisps made entirely of rice flour. And my hands-down favorite starter is a stack of Korean pancakes (bin dae duk) topped with caramelized kimchi, braised pork belly and a sunnyside-up quail egg, dressed with black-garlic aioli. Served four to a portion, this dish should be on every table in the restaurant.
Fish plays a major role among the main courses. A trio of massive prawns highlights a Singapore noodles dish, though pieces of barbecued pork and lap cheung sausage make the dish sing (and I'm just scratching the surface of that complex creation). Grilled swordfish in miso-mustard sauce is a hit, as is Maryland striped bass with a bit of coconut broth. The bouillabaisse is a star, albeit a relatively hot one, a bounty of shellfish and cod in a broth laced with gochujang (a spicy chile and fermented soybean paste) and served with grilled bread slathered with peppery rouille.
I like the elk loin with kabocha squash and pickled blueberries, though this dish is probably headed for a spring makeover. Braised short ribs, smothered in house-made Thai-style curry sauce with basil-potato puree, is likely to stay on the menu for quite a while longer, as it was the dish Kim used to win one of the "Top Chef" challenges.
Portions are such that side dishes aren't necessary, but if you're indulging, get the crispy Brussels sprouts, ably abetted by kimchi and pork belly. And I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the excellent naan, served with a trio of traditional sauces, that arrives unbidden to start every meal.
Pastry chef Erin Brew contributes some very pretty desserts, including a coconut panna cotta with carrot-ginger consomme, sake-soaked raisins and a crisp carrot-cake tuile on top; and a martini glass filled with honey-chile granita, coconut sorbet and a fig-walnut cookie. Green-tea ice cream makes a nice foil for a Valrhona-chocolate pot de creme topped with crispy "pocky" (peppercorn-laced crisps modeled after a popular Japanese snack food), and my favorite, a soothing chocolate-caramel mousse with tamarind caramel, is matched to an outrageously delicious smoked-almond ice cream.
Aria's servers seem pretty sharp, unaffectedly conversant with Kim's complex dishes and full of good humor and charm. Wine service is troublesome; an ordered bottle took an inordinately long time to arrive, and when it did, the white wine was scarcely below room temperature. I assumed the delay was due to the staff's frantic attempts to chill the wine on the fly, but when I later ordered a red, the food for which the wine was ordered was at the table long before the bottle showed up. "The wine will be here in a minute," promised our waiter, when the bottle in question was in full view of our table, standing forlornly at a service station.
On another visit, we were greeted — well, acknowledged — by an unsmiling hostess who informed us that our table wasn't ready. Anticipating a short delay, we headed for the lounge (a very comfortable space, by the way), but 30 minutes later, after griping to a cocktail waitress, we were told there were still "several tables ahead of you," as though that whole reservations thing merely granted us a place in line. Further protests earned us a round of drinks, and we were eventually seated — nearly an hour past the original reserved time — with neither explanation nor apology.
Restaurants in which most entrees exceed $30 should know better, and/or be staffed better. Aria needs to operate at a higher level. Kim ought to demand it.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
200 N. Columbus Drive; 312-444-9494; ariachicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday
Entree prices: $26-$39
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V