Sometimes it’s hard to say “I love you” because words just aren’t enough. That’s where I am with this review of Parachute, the new Korean, or rather “Korean-American” restaurant in Avondale from husband-and-wife chefs Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim, a Top Cheftestant who appeared on the show during her tenure at Aria. My head still isn’t right after my meals at Parachute, maybe in part because the last time they opened a restaurant together, taking over Logan Square’s Bonsoiree with a 12-course Korean-influenced prix fixe menu, I thoroughly hated it.
Things are different now.
There have been plenty of attempts to open cheffy reimagined Korean restaurants in recent years, a phenomenon hampered in part by the persistent and erroneous expectation that Korean food has to be cheap and served in dingy windowless smoke boxes by irritable ajummas in order to be good. But most of these new mainstreaming restaurants fail to capture the real reasons the food is good—its unapologetic heat and funk and the natural balance between the two, its fearless, economical omnivorousness, and the fact that it’s one of the most elemental soul foods in the world. Those new places lack soul.
Parachute resembles the older, uncompromising ones in a few ways. It exists in a relatively unhyped and unhip neighborhood. It smells like actual cooking is taking place on the premises. It’s run by a real-life mom and pop. But most of all, it’s got soul.
Here’s why: On paper Parachute’s $17 dolsot bibimbap looks like an affront. But when you hear it approaching from across the crowded dining room, sizzling like a downed telephone wire in its superheated stone bowl, and it hits the table between you and hopefully someone you like to share food with, and you dig below the raw duck egg and kale dressed in a thin, mildly livery foie gras sauce into the soft rice mined with chunks of tender short rib, and you hit bottom and scrape up the crunchy layer of toasty nurungi, and you start churning the contents until the pickled red Tropea onions settle in among the rapidly cooking greens and eggs and the spicy gochuchang coats the mingled crispy rice and soft rice, and you take a bite of this classic, a rice salad that’s inherently one of the most pleasurably textured and balanced dishes on the planet, you realize you happen to be eating one of the best versions of it outside of a Seoul street market. And it doesn’t stop there.
It starts with three varieties of house-made pickles: a spicy, traditional cabbage kimchi, fresh but teeming with ferment; dense strips of sweetened watermelon radish; and a brisk Sichuan-style celery and peanut mix. Lightly battered and crispy green sesame leaves are a good match for the pickles, irresistible enough that the bourbon-barrel-aged soy dipping sauce seems unnecessary. There’s a presentation of bindaetteok, a mung-bean pancake griddled with pieces of pork belly, topped with an egg and dotted with fermented black-garlic aioli. There are house-made buckwheat noodles, nothing like the thin, slimy ones that dominate orthodox versions of the cold summer dish naengmyun, but ruddy and linguinelike, bathing in a chilled kimchi broth and garnished with delicate lettuce, cool cucumber, and pine nuts. The typical Korean dumpling known as mandu is elongated to an almost blintzlike rectangularity, stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and roasted asparagus, strewn with slivered almonds, and, completing the westward glance, bedded on strained yogurt.
The most straightforward Korean dish on the menu is a deep, simmering hot pot filled with an angry red, deeply savory crab broth thick with giant clams and prawns, chewy rice cakes, and slivers of bitter black radish. But no matter how far Kim and Clark push these instantly recognizable Korean dishes, they’re always rooted in what makes them fundamentally good to eat in the first place.
Things are equally appealing when the pair travel beyond Korea, particularly when they mix up the DNA of the discus-shaped Chinese bread bing with a baked potato, incorporating tuber, bacon, and scallions into the soft, stretchy dough and serving it with a sour-cream compound butter. Just as audacious is a modernist boudin noir with an eye on Thailand: a square of flanlike spreadable blood, almost chocolatey in flavor, strewn with crunchy endive spears (tasting as if they’ve been infused with sweet, sour, and fishy nam prik dipping sauce), peanuts, puffed rice, and cool spearmint leaves, all arranged on an understory of tangy coconut yogurt. It’s a mind-blowing dish, reminiscent of the more cerebral things Kim and Clark attempted at Bonsoiree, but with wildly divergent flavors and textures that still somehow seem right in place.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of the simplest, homiest dishes are just as unforgettable. Thick, chewy handmade wheat noodles tossed with a sweet and spicy cumin-loaded lamb ragu are reminiscent of a dish popularized at X’ian Famous Foods, a little food stall in a subterranean Flushing food court. Until it opens a branch here, this is the only substitute. Meanwhile, steak tartare is dosed with a nasal-clearing load of Chinese mustard, while a stack of meaty, firm spare ribs with a thin shellac of honey and fermented yuzu-chile dressing has an interaction with the minty shiso-leaf garnishes that feels almost narcotic.
Kim and Clark don’t seem worried about offending anyone. Across this menu you’ll find assertive, bright, uncompromising flavors. I only came across two dishes that didn’t rise to the level of the others, both of them built around otherwise delicious sea creatures: a fresh kampachi ceviche that got lost among tart green strawberries and fennel, and a delicate olive-oil-poached lemon fish soaking in dashi and buried in smoked wheat berries and a shroud of wet cucumber.
There’s certainly no lack of gumption at dessert either, where a napoleon sandwiching tart yuzu curd and nutty black-sesame “Bavarian cream” is sprinkled with powdered brown butter that will sanction the indignity of plate licking, and an astonishing take on the icy sundae known as patbingsu that pits cucumber-infused shaved ice and celerylike lovage leaves against rich condensed-milk ice cream and thick, sweet red-bean paste.
There’s only a single beer on tap at Parachute—appropriately, Revolution’s light and refreshing Rosa Hibiscus Ale, but there’s plenty of other things to drink: eight canned beers, eight straight spirits, four cocktails, and a diverse Old and New World wine list with no bottle over $55. But don’t deny yourself at least one bottle of locally brewed, gently fizzy, all-natural Baesangmyun rice wine, otherwise known as Slow City makgeolli.
Parachute has a lot more going for it than just the food. It’s not expensive. It’s comfortable, with a long kitchen bar and communal table under vintage stereo speakers mounted on the wall. Most of all, it seems to be fueled by a perpetual source of conviviality, a virtue that might eventually come in shorter supply. Parachute doesn’t take reservations, but each time I ate there it was still possible to get a seat fairly quickly if you arrived at the right time—early or late. As more people fall hard for this remarkable new mom-and-pop, I don’t expect it to be easy for much longer.