One of the most absurdly delicious things I’ve eaten this winter was a humongous lump of deep-fried chicken breast with a core of molten cheese from Hot Star Large Fried Chicken, a Taiwanese chain with several outposts in and around Toronto and Los Angeles. It’s the kind of thing that blinds you to how truly bad for you it is until your greasy paws are empty, there’s cheese dripping down your chin, and you want to fall over and die.
I thought of that chicken at S.K.Y., a vaguely pan-Asian (vaguesian?) restaurant from Stephen Gillanders, who arrived in Chicago in 2011 with little fanfare to help reopen the Pump Room under Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Three years later he returned to great fanfare as the fourth chef at Intro, Lettuce Entertain You’s late pop-up experiment, staying on past his tenure to provide a baseline of consistency and approachability as newer chefs came and went. S.K.Y., which happens to be the initials of the chef’s wife, is his first solo outing, which he’d originally planned on opening in Los Angeles, his hometown.
The chef’s fried chicken is one of the entree-size plates on the menu. It’s two thickly battered, togarashi-dusted deep-fried thighs positioned between 11 and one o’clock on the plate over a circle of corn porridge with the consistency of risotto, in its center a fermented habanero hot sauce tamed by butter. It’s far more sophisticated than Hot Star. It won’t make you hate yourself, for one thing—together the components look like a smiley face—but it’s every bit as irresistible.
I ate this knockout dish along with another, a foie gras bibimbap cooked in a dolsot, a stone bowl heated so that that bottom layer of the rice forms nurungji, a crispy scorched crust that when mixed in adds an irresistible texture to softer mushrooms steeped in bulgogi marinade. The duck liver, subbing for an egg, blends seamlessly into the mix of grain and greens, lending a understated rich, meaty sumptuousness to the bowl, a great gateway dish for foie gras first-timers.
Gillanders frequently pushes the right buttons, as with a quartet of black truffle croquettes encasing a matrix of gooey aged white cheddar and jalapeño and releasing a fungal ambrosia that rises to your nostrils. Lobster dumplings, sweet and snappy, bathe in a pool of “jade butter” colored with fermented jalapeño paste. Seared diver scallops mingle with maitake mushrooms in a dashi mounted with brown butter. Corn-bread madeleines slathered with olive-oil-whipped butter are so moist they barely make it to your mouth.
Crunchy fried potatoes are countered with slightly bitter fried rosemary, oregano, thyme, and parsley, and blistered Sichuan-style green beans are tossed with crushed peanuts and fermented black-bean vinaigrette. Long stretches of roasted carrots and parsnips wallow in a pureed sultana-raisin vinaigrette along with grapes, blue cheese, and candied walnuts.
Gillanders’s signature preparation, a dish he developed at Intro, is a pretty, kaleidoscopic plate of thick hamachi sashimi adorned with ponzu, creamy avocado, puffed rice, and hydrated black sesame seeds that pop like caviar. Even an amuse of pureed edamame on puffed rice chips—a brightly acidic Japanese variant on guacamole—is an encouraging harbinger of things to come.
Not all of the chef’s dishes hit these high notes. Some come across as pro forma renditions of common things, Asian and otherwise. Chile-dusted Japanese cucumbers bathe in a dressing of garlic, soy, and sesame oil that almost presents as miso. A Thai chicken-and-coconut-milk soup (aka tom kha gai) is a workmanlike rendition, warm and comforting but unmemorable. Same goes for a Thai steak salad, familiar flavors muted for the safety of all. A nicely rendered, perfectly formed braised beef short rib is dull in flavor relative to the brighter dishes on the menu, its brilliant green but ultimately bland chive dumplings failing to rise to the level of their own arresting appearance.
Things come a bit more alive at dessert with a light cheesecake roofed with burnt sugar and served alongside last summer’s preserved blueberries. Even more texturally busy is a banana budino, the pudding resting on a bourbon caramel and covered in granola, heavy on the banana chips.
It’s the only taste of booze they’ll serve you at S.K.Y until the liquor license kicks in (estimated January 26), delayed due to the restaurant’s proximity to a church. That’s just one of the struggles Gillanders and company have had to contend with since opening. The restaurant has been targeted by an aggressive anti-gentrification campaign familiar to both old and new residents of Pilsen. In spite of it, Gillanders is working well and making his way on this small stretch of 18th Street, along with three other prominent new Asian restaurants (HaiSous, Cà Phê Dá, and Furious Spoon). In a perfect world creative people wouldn’t have to compete with each other in order to express themselves—it would just be the kind of internal struggle that produces good work. Change happens, for better and for worse. v