In many respects, iNG represents the spirit of contemporary Chicagoan Cuisine – it is multicultural in its inspiration, it is progressive in its cooking techniques, and it is defiant and humorous in its presentations. Chef Cantu is the poster child of Chicago’s obsession with molecular gastronomy. While his peers Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot, and Curtis Duffy generally receive more positive reviews from critics and food bloggers (I am excluding a distinct spiteful individual from New York, of course), Cantu is often singled out and zinged for being a mad scientist whose cooking is more gimmicks than substance.
iNG is Homaro Cantu’s newest brainchild in the Fulton Market restaurant district. It took over the former Otom space, just down the block from its more expensive and more established sister-restaurant, Moto. Shortly after Moto received its first Michelin star in November of 2011, iNG quietly changed its menu format from a la carte to a 6-course degustation. The intent could not be more clear – Cantu wants to focus the menu and showcase a comprehensive point-of-view, perhaps for his own edification, but more likely for the prospective Michelin inspectors.
On my way to the restaurant, I walked pass The Publican. It was packed on a freezing December weeknight. However, when I walked one block further to iNG, I was surprised to walk into an empty restaurant. As it turned out, I was one of the only two reservations that night, and I would be the only diner in the restaurant until the very end of my meal. That’s why I was somewhat peeved when, upon arrival, I was not asked where I’d prefer to sit and was led straight to the very back of the restaurant to a small table too far for me to see the noodle bar. Granted, the manager later came to ask if I wanted to relocate to a bigger table with a more comfortable couch, but it was too little too late. I was already in the middle of suppressing my disappointment, and I was not going to take the belated invitation as if it were a favor.
The décor was decidedly contemporary – wavy wall, wooden table, sexy red chairs and banquette. It looked like one of those modern bistros/cafés in Asia. Lighting was low but adequate. If you were fortunate enough to be seated at a table with a banquette, this could be a setting for a romantic night out.
As expected, the meal started with a non-conventional amuse bouche. It came in an origami box. Unfolding the origami revealed the paper menu and things that looked like packing peanuts. As I read the menu, I realized that the $85 tasting menu came with 6 courses AND beverage pairing. This was a good deal. The packing peanuts were actually made with some kind of starch. There was a light crunch to it not unlike pork rind or shrimp cracker, but with much more easy-going flavor-profile. It was teetering on the line between sweet and savory, like a chocolate peanut butter cup. There were also hints of cardamom that gave it a mild herbal/spicy quality. This worked well as an appetizer.
The first proper course was sweet potato pie chain. One would think this was an homage to southern comfort food. This was anything but. The dish literally came with four rings of sweet potato that were somehow linked together to create a single chain. It was curious how the chain was formed. I was poking around to see if there was some kind of opening on the sweet potato ring. Nope – magic as far as I was concerned. The texture of the sweet potato, though, was in the unpleasant middle ground between fluffy and crispy. I had a little problem cutting the rings with the dull knife they provided. The sauce was adequate and again hovered between sweet and savory.
The second dish was named “baozi.” Baozi is a Chinese bun with either meat, bean, or vegetable filling. The presentation was impressive. It came on a cool metal pedestal, with the baozi on the top level and the sauce on the side. The baozi had two pieces of dough sandwiching what they called “roast beast” and cheese. It looked nothing like a baozi – it looked like a cheese burger to me. The buns were under-leaven – a faux pas in Chinese cooking. But the meat was flavorful and the Sriracha-like sauce went well with the burger.
Next was “la mien.” La mien (where the Japanese got their word “ramen”) means pulled noodle in Chinese. And iNG actually had a chef hand-pulling noodle at the front of the restaurant. I thought that was an attractive spectacle. Unfortunately, the noodle was pulled way too thin – almost as thin as mi-sua (Taiwanese vermicelli). Moreover, the noodle strands were of different thickness – a sign of inexperience. I suppose you could say it was rustic or home-style cooking. But such la-mien technique would not be acceptable at a Chinese restaurant.
That said, since the la mien was made fresh and hand-pulled right before cooking, the al dente texture was nicely pronounced. The broth was rich with umami from mushroom and contained hints of brightness from orange juice – a creative touch to lighten up the dish. The protein that came with the la mien was supposed to be “Peking duck,” as introduced by my waiter. There was nothing Peking about that duck. The duck was tender and flavorful, but it did not have any skin or fat on it. Misnomer of ethnic food items seems to be a problem here. There was also a half-boiled quail egg (like the Japanese onsen tamago) – that was perfectly executed. The savory egg yolk bursted into my mouth like a Shanghai soup dumpling. I loved it.
The final savory course was “surf and turf,” which consisted of medium-well salmon, poached lobster, and braised short rib. The presentation followed the Charlie Trotter style – sparse and asymmetrical. Each morsel was superbly executed – the textures were spot on. The flavors, however, were rather one-note and largely forgettable. The black pepper foam on top of the proteins was nearly tasteless.
Twice throughout the meal, the waiter brought out what they called “miracle berry” (once in the form of a pill, and once in the form of powder).
Apparently, these were some exotic berries from West Africa. Much like Sichuan peppercorn, these berries block some of the receptors on your taste buds and make sweetness especially apparent. This worked like a charm. Even though the presentations evoke horrible childhood memories of taking medicine, things did in fact taste sweeter without more sugar. For example, the first dessert course – a rather non-traditional cheese course consisted of Humboldt fog, spiced cake, and manipulated apple that looked like cheese cubes – tasted like what their respective ingredients were supposed to taste like at the beginning. But after I took the miracle berry potion, things tasted like apple pie and cheesecake. Wicked!
The last course – eggs, bacon, and waffle – read like breakfast. And they looked like breakfast too. But they were in fact bona-fide desserts. The egg white was lychee puree, and the egg yolk was made with passion fruit. The bacon was your traditional black-and-white cookie. The waffle was squash-flavored ice cream drizzled with Bourbon syrup. Flavor-wise, it was a pretty ordinary trio of desserts. But the concept was fun and entertaining. There was that sense of wonder when trying to figure out what each component was, and you could tell the waiter got a kick out of revealing the ingredients to you.
The beverage pairing was quite successful. I had a mixture of wine, beer, cocktail, and spiked eggnog. You could ask for non-alcoholic pairing as well. The progression of the meal was sensical , and the pace was just right. I was in-and-out within an hour and a half, but at no point did I feel rushed.
Service was friendly and informative throughout. The wait staffs were all knowledgeable and genuinely interested in whether I was enjoying my food. My main waiter, though, spoke way too fast. It was as if he needed to get the words out of his system before he forgot the script. I had a hard time understanding him. But of course he was nice and patient when I asked him to repeat some of the ingredients. Each waiter had a visible ear piece they used to communicate with one another. I found it hard to relax when the wait staffs paced around talking into their ear piece like they were working in the back stage of a concert. It wasn’t anything one couldn’t overlook though.
Mad scientist? Gimmicks over substance? That’s unfair. The kitchen of iNG could do some serious cooking. It was caliber food at a very reasonable price. Moreover, I was thoroughly entertained and intellectually engaged by the food. The menu was obviously well-thought-out by cultured and smart minds – there were nods to several esoteric ethnic concepts, and there was an impish sense of humor in every dish. True, the food, while good, certainly didn’t match up to the level of wizardry. To get any attention from Michelin, they would need to up their game on developing flavors (the most interesting flavor-concept during the meal should be incorporated into the actual cooking rather than taken as a pill or a potion). But at the end of the day, you are really here for the overall experience. Come for a date, come with adventurous friends, or bring your out-of-town friends who are looking for something uniquely Chicago. You are guaranteed to have fun here. Obviously, if you are generally unimpressed with progressive cooking, this place will not change your mind. It will just be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
951 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607