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Bucktown’s Chinese-American Hotspot Disappoints a Critic

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Plus, an Albany Park cocktail bar offers a fresh spin on classic drinks

A flaming wok being flung.
Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar doesn’t live up to a critic’s expectations.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago

Chef’s Special is a chef-driven take on American-Chinese cuisine in Bucktown that fails to live up to Michael Nagrant’s standards. The new restaurant and cocktail bar from the group behind Giant looks “Salvation Army-chic” and worse yet, struggles at improving classic staples. The huge egg rolls contain gigantic shrimp but aside from that, “you wouldn’t be able to pick this egg roll, or frankly, even the Chef’s Special crab rangoon out of a line-up of ten pu pu platters selected at random from all Chicago Chinese takeout joints.” The walnut shrimp is “barely sweet, tossed with bitter radicchio like some kind of cruise ship side salad, and you have to go full on Dora the Explorer to locate any of the tiny nut clusters.”

Beef chow fun is similarly bland and eats “like a tangle of microwaved Annie Chun’s,” while dry chili chicken “has the furor of a dollop of Sweet Baby Rays, and the whole thing woefully yearns for salt.” A few dishes do excel, such as the “unique” salad of silky tofu skin, chicken skin, peanuts, and sesame, “a study in brilliant textural contrasts.” The mapo tofu is also one of the best versions around, “filled with lava-hot-ground-pork-laden-gravy and jiggly cubes of buttery tofu.” Desserts feature a terrific reinvention of almond cookies and cocktails include the #1, a “bitter-kissed fruity stone-cold stunner” made with gin, mango brandy, absinthe, cherry, and lemon. Much like Jewish delis in America, Chef’s Special can’t overcome the power of nostalgia that permeates most of its food. [Michael Nagrant]

Bokeh is a “stylish, relaxed” new cocktail den in Albany Park. Maggie Hennessy says each offering “drinks like seeing something familiar from a brand-new angle.” Fernet-Branca is the star in a “minty, frothy, suppressor sour,” and the Depth of Field is a “surprisingly good cabbagey gimlet.” Hennessy’s favorite drink, the Focal Length, pairs mescal with cherry liqueur, wine-based aperitif, and grapefruit juice; “a splash of cava lightens the load, lending the drink a lovely fuzzy texture.” However, the food is a miss and “often-oversalted.” Hot chicken’s batter is “applied too thick, and the meat inside dry,” while a salad of radishes and sunflower seeds is “almost perfect, save for a brackish champagne vinaigrette.” [Time Out]

Boqueria in Fulton Market “does the classic roster of tapas more than adequately, deserving a visit from both aficionados and the Rip Van Winkles who have never been to a tapas restaurant before,” according to Graham Meyer. Almost all of the New York Import’s bites outdo “the average version without straying from the dish’s formula.” Anchovies are plated with “good” butter, lemon zest, and enough bread to temper the “strong flavors.” Other favorites include lamb skewers with pickled shallots and salsa verde; calamares cooked with white beans, preserved artichokes, and Calabrian chiles; and roasted eggplant spread on toast with labneh yogurt and red peppers. Just about the only misfire are the lamb meatballs, served in tomato sauce, that clang with the “bizarre counterpoint of raw cucumber slices.” [Crain’s]

Chef's Special Cocktail Bar

2165 N. Western Avenue, Chicago, IL (773) 666-5143 Visit Website

Bokeh

4716 North Kedzie Avenue, , IL 60625 (773) 754-0129 Visit Website

Boqueria Chicago

807 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 Visit Website

Giant

3209 West Armitage Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 252-0997 Visit Website

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