I was once taken by well-meaning hosts to a large Italian chain restaurant in the midsize city of Gwangju, South Korea. After several weeks of stuffing me with everything the putative bread basket of the peninsula had to offer, they thought I might be missing a taste of home. So we went for pizza.
Served on red-checkered tablecloths, some pies had long strips of cooked squash baked into them. Others were slathered in corn and mayonnaise. All of them were thick and biscuitty, unlike anything I’d ever eaten before. For me, they were a scratch for an itch that didn’t exist.
And yet Koreans the world over are masters at adapting other cuisines to suit their own tastes, with universally appealing results. Korean fried chicken is divine proof that the birds are meant to be eaten. Cross-border Korean-Chinese migration patterns gave us black-bean-sauce-drenched ja jiang mian, the most comforting noodles in the world. In the aughts, LA’s Koji BBQ food truck, piloted by a Korean-American chef, essentially launched an American street-food revolution with spicy pork tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Meanwhile in New York, David Chang was roasting whole sugar-crusted pork shoulders and serving them bo saam style with kimchi, raw oysters, fermented chile-soybean sauce, and Bibb lettuce to wrap it all up.
It’s safe to say that a unique vein of Korean-American cuisine has threaded across the country since then. We in the midwest have experienced it too, from Bill Kim’s wanton global sampling at the Bellys to Beverly Kim’s seemingly limitless inventions at Parachute to Edward Kim’s clever, occasionally weird mashups at Mott St. to the beautifully plated artistry of Dave Park at the late suburban Hanbun.
Jennifer Kim of Passerotto is the next candidate for this esteemed club. Kim, you may remember, was formerly a chef at the ungoogleably named, extortionately priced, and ultimately doomed C Chicago, who escaped that shipwreck with her then-
boyfriend, chef Bill Montaigne, and resurfaced to open Snaggletooth, a marvelous Lakeview microdeli where the two made art with cured fish and bagels. There she had a hand in creating a pastrami-cured trout tartine with a schmear of seared, pureed kimchi piled on pumpernickel. “It’s one the most visually stunning and delicious things I’ve ingested all year,” I slobbered in 2016, just a year before the place closed.
Now Kim, who’d previously bounced around the One Off Hospitality restaurants Nico Osteria, Blackbird, and Avec, has resurfaced in Andersonville with a novel marriage of Korean and Italian food, drawing inspiration from a theoretical summit between umma and nonna. Kim says the roots of this inspiration are in her student days at UIC, when Taylor Street offered none of the comforting Korean food she grew up on but plenty of Italian-American to fill the void.
In truth, the food at Passerotto (which translates as “little sparrow”) is nothing like granny’s. That’s evidenced by a series of the raw proteins known as hwe at the top of her focused menu. Some of these pretty little plates—lovingly and respectfully accented jewels of cleanly cut fish flesh—still exhibit the infuriating qualities of crudo.
Specifically, a few lean toward the precious and parsimonious, like slices of alabaster fluke adorned with tiny maitake mushrooms and shreds of aromatic celery leaf, or hamachi adorned with mint and scarlet slices of plum. They’re delicious, and they recall her fine work at Snaggletooth, but they leave you wanting more.
On the other hand, a plate of sweet bay scallops ornamented with tiny purple catmint flowers (or whatever else the forager brings in), dabs of funky umami-rich XO sauce, and a potent soy-onion puree, pierced with acidic citron, is one of the loveliest plates of food I’ve encountered all year (maybe even since the Snaggletooth tartine?), and a rare case of crudo that satisfies in proportion to its price.
Same goes for a pile of ruddy, funky, life-affirming lamb tartare showered in Parmesan and violet chive blossoms with sweet curls of Asian pear, a soy-mirin-sugar confit egg yolk lurking in its midst waiting to disperse its rich unctuousness. Large salty puffed-rice crackers dusted with black lime, the irresistible vehicle for this, earn a spot in the movie-theater-snack hall of fame I’m currently seeking funding for.
Less remarkable is the kimchi pajeon, the iconic crispy-soft, sometimes gooey flour pancake that precedes so many Korean feasts. Kim uses chickpea rather than wheat flour—a nod to Ligurian farinata—which makes the pancake refuse to rise and gives it a dry, grainy mouthfeel. Studded with charred scallions and topped with fresh spring peas and a mustard-green pesto, it’s a pretty plate that begs for something to approximate the traditional soy-vinegar dipping sauce.
On the other hand, Kim’s fried chicken, called “Pelicana Chicken” after the Korean fast-food chain, has a brittle-crisp coating that stands up to a thick, punchy glaze of gochuchang and Calabrian chiles. The sticky, cylindrical rice-cake street-food snacks ddeokbokki are treated like a composed pasta, grilled to offset their inherent chewiness and blanketed with lamb neck ragu and Parmesan shavings. The closest thing to a traditional Italian pasta is a springlike bowl of firm cavatelli luxuriating in umami-drenched nori butter and singing of the soon-to-vanish springtime with asparagus and pickled ramps, deep-fried sweet potato chips adding crunch. Hwe dup bap is the anti-poke, nutty farro instead of rice topped with a generous portion of, say, tuna, fluke, or hamachi, with deep-fried kale, thin-sliced watermelon radish, and lots of garden greenery.
The menu climaxes with two large-format dishes meant to be shared, accompanied by a half-dozen banchan—seaweed, sweet potato salad, radish and cabbage kimchis. The kalbi is a single length of sous vide and grilled short rib, sliced in perfect squares and redeployed atop the bone next to some artfully plated red-cabbage kimchi. A spadelike shiso leaf with a smear of ssamjang is the vehicle for these robustly beefy bites. The other large offering is a conflation of the Tuscan seafood stew cacciucco and the tofu stew sundubu. As in both traditions, it’s brimming with prawns, clams, and mussels, but here those come with soft chunks of tofu, slices of watermelon radish, and mizuna. Its broth, with a mild infusion of kimchi juice, is glossy and full of body but missing some of the sour-and-spicy character that makes sundubu an ideal hangover helper.
You might need that after all, even given the concision of the beverage list: a handful of reds, whites, and rosés, with surprisingly few Italians among them. Among the half-dozen drafts, the local Prima farmhouse cider is an excellent pairing with many of these dishes, and, amid a trio of cocktails, the Coalmine’s Canary is a truly delightful refresher of Malort, gin, and grapefruit. Mercifully, there are no sojutinis.
For dessert there’s just one option: the Tuscan biscuits known as cantuccini with the traditional pairing of a glass of the dessert wine vin santo or the “straw wine” passito, made from dried grapes.
The food at Passerotto is more Korean than Italian, the latter more a subtle, subordinate influence that in most cases is expressed seamlessly. Even with a few missteps, Kim has firmly cemented her place among the chefs doing progressive, exciting things with Korean food, and I’m eager to see what else she comes up with. v