Editor’s note: Oon closed in December 2013.
When the siblings behind the French Market banh mi stall Saigon Sisters opened their full-service restaurant three years ago under Matt Eversman, I made a big deal of his youth and his audacity in tackling a cuisine—Vietnamese—he had little real-world experience with. When Eversman bolted from the West Loop restaurant (also named Saigon Sisters) a little more than six months later, announcing a new restaurant was on the way, nebulously categorized as “southeast Asian,” it was difficult to decide whether to be excited or worried. His reinvention of and respect for classic Vietnamese food at his former post was so seamless, winning, and delicious that it was thrilling to imagine what he could do with the diverse traditions of a continental subregion that encompasses some 14 nations. Then again, when a restaurant applies that broad a brush it usually leads to dull, diluted flavors in pursuit of some unworkable fusion.
With my first bite at Oon, Eversman’s year-and-a-half-in-the-making Randolph Street restaurant, I was relieved. It was a blackened grilled prawn, its shell painted with the muted heat of a Japanese spice blend, resting across some squirts of smoky grilled scallion puree, dabs of creamy liquid lemon, and coins of candied kumquat, all strewn with strands of lightly wilted baby mustard greens. It’s so delicious it demands that the eater suck every last trace of flavor from the crustacean’s head. Eversman evidently gets excited to see that. He rushed over to our table and congratulated us on our carapace slurping and mentioned that this was one of his proudest dishes. It’s a perfect balance of sweet sea creature, acidic fruit, and vegetal smokiness, and it’s every bit as good as the octopus: sweetly glazed and grilled tangles of tentacle coiled among mounds of nutty wheat berries, nuggets of battered and deep-fried Mexican chorizo, and dollops of vinegary smoked strawberry puree.
There were some occasions at Saigon Sisters when Eversman employed these highly composed platings and wild flavor combinations, but here the food is much more formally presented. It’s less homey, and far less Vietnamese, though that’s still present too.
The foie pho is brought to the table as a dry bowl filled with a modest amount of bean sprouts, thin slices of raw duck breast, unusually ruddy rice noodles, and a single small slab of seared duck liver. Poured over this is a clean, clear, intensely ducky broth that cooks the meat and releases the aroma from a few leaves of Thai basil. It’s a delicate dish, served with such reverence that it might have come from a completely different world than the one that produced the hearty bowls served in the myriad pho-stablishments on Argyle Street, or even the ones the chef was preparing at Saigon Sisters. Similar in its formality, a small bowl of thick, irregular, and perhaps slightly undercooked cold udon noodles—twined among sweet crab, mushrooms, mint, and scallions—is showered with a chile-lime vinaigrette that mingles at the bottom with a light dashi. These aren’t street food knockoffs anymore, or at least you won’t recognize the ones that are.
There is plenty to put your hands on, though. The translucent rice-paper wrapping of the fat pork-belly spring rolls reveals brilliant pink slices of watermelon radish offset by bands of bright green lettuce. The rolls are meant to be dredged through a thick smear of grilled corn puree. Mussels in a lightly curried coconut broth, with a load of confit garlic cloves, are good enough on their own but are sent over the top with a fluffy, light, golden-fried bao to sop up the juices. Eversman should be petitioned to set a basket of these on each table for bread service.
In some ways the chef’s formality strays to the conventional, especially among meat and starch entrees that still bear plenty of interesting elements. A tight betel-leaf-wrapped pork roulade sits atop a purple potato puree alongside battered, deep-fried figs and a scoop of pickled apricot. Three lamb chops scattered with pickled onions triangulate over a vanilla potato puree drizzled in a highly concentrated cherry oyster sauce. These dishes are perfectly good, but they’re at odds with the buoyancy of some of the better ones, such as a hoisin-glazed quail that seeps into its understory of coconut-ginger fried rice, or a simple, pink-perfect flank steak sliced and drizzled with tart chimichurri over yellow curried noodles and charred peaches.
Yes, there are a few duds. Green papaya salad with julienned daikon, fried shallots, crispy pancetta, and mango has no crunch and lacks every flavor essential to this dish: heat, acidity, and fish-sauce funk. The “foraged” daikon with brussels sprouts and barley, splattered with liquefied carrot and garnished with a dehydrated plume of maitake mushroom, is the sort of dry, dusty thing that makes you feel sorry for vegetarians.
Restrained and breezy cocktails, ten sakes, and a lengthy wine list heavy on the whites and rosés make the dishes go down easy, while just a trio of desserts—a yuzu panna cotta, a chocolate-banana cake, and a quartet of sugared, underfried five-spice doughnut holes meant to dipped in a gingery creme anglaise—are available for the afterglow.
Among other recent pan-Asian openings like Embeya, Kabocha, and Vu Sua, Eversman’s Oon is the ballsiest. It isn’t as nervy as Saigon Sisters, but it shows a strength and maturity that perhaps restrains some of the fearlessness I think I’m missing. I guess everyone grows up.