Pork ribs with shiso leaves
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of blood sausage. Call it what you want—black pudding, morcilla, blutwurst or any other fancy-pants name—but its iron-tinged flavor has never left me wanting for more. So I was a little surprised to find myself unable to resist using my finger to wipe up the last bit of boudin noir left on the plate at Parachute, a new Korean-American restaurant on an untrendy street in Avondale. In retrospect, with the parade of terrific dishes that had already come before it, each a fun and delicious mix of unexpected flavors and ingredients, my newfound love affair with my one-time food foe wasn’t much of a surprise after all.
To say Parachute is a passion project is an understatement. The husband-and-wife chefs behind it, John Clark and Beverly Kim—he, a Culinary Institute of America grad who’s worked at restaurants in Korea, Paris and Chicago’s Lula Cafe; she, a Top Chef contestant a few years back, who’s done stints at The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, Aria and Takashi—have worked hard to turn a former Mexican bakery and taqueria into their dream restaurant. The couple did plenty of the renovation work themselves, and even set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund some of those inevitable last-minute costs.
That hands-on, personal approach has left its mark all over the charming 40-seat restaurant, from the funky-in-a-good-way decor to the dishes coming out of the tiny open kitchen. “Our goal is to be as simple as possible and not to overthink the food,” says Kim. “We want Parachute to be an approachable neighborhood restaurant that features the flavors we love.”
Judging from the crowds at this no-reservations spot, the couple has tapped into a cuisine craving a lot of us didn’t even know we had. Or, as our friendly server said, “There’s nothing on the menu you shouldn’t get.” And you know what? She’s right.
While the menu isn’t physically divided into separate meal parts, it does have a flow to it: Snacks and appetizers are listed in the top portion in smaller type, with the plates getting bigger and heartier as you move downward. The beverage side is equally user-friendly, with a smattering of intriguing cocktails—some echoing the exotic ingredients used in the food. The international wine list is arranged by price groupings and is available by the glass, carafe and bottle. But just because the menu is a breeze to navigate, that doesn’t make deciding what to get any easier. Don’t panic. Just accept, as I did, that you’ll be back. A lot.
Part of Parachute’s charm is its mix of familiar ingredients with those that might make you reach for your iPhone to do some research. So, on one hand, you have things like the wonderfully crispy tempura-battered fried sesame leaves (who knew?), a snack Kim’s mom used to make for her growing up; and on the other, a terrific version of salt cod and potato croquettes. Both of these small plates are worthy of your attention with, or without (my preference), their accompanying dipping sauces.
A nice foil to the richness of those two dishes is the trio of house pickles that includes chile garlic scapes, watermelon-radish zuke and some kicky kimchee.
Before you leave the snack area of the menu, you’re going to want to order the baked potato bing bread, which is studded with bits of bacon and scallions, and served with a dollop of tangy sour-cream butter. Restrain from devouring it all, and put aside a piece to eat with the boudin noir. The creamy square of blood sausage, actually more like pate, is topped with crisp endive leaves, puffed rice and peanuts. Spearmint leaves, nam phrik (Thai chile sauce) and a small puddle of coconut yogurt underneath add fragrant notes to the beautiful dish (the accompaniments have since been changed to slices of summer apples and kohlrabi, chinese mustard and pine nuts). To take the boudin noir in a totally different direction, schmear some on the bread (trust me).
I like how Parachute handles pork ribs too. Rather than go in the expected sticky-sweet route, the version here is more subtle, with hints of citrusy yuzu. And those large shiso leaves on the plate aren’t just for show. Be sure to grab one or two before your dining partners catch on.
Looking to turn up the heat? Opt for hand-torn noodles, generously studded with bits of lamb spiced with Sichuan peppercorns and cumin. That ubiquitous menu ingredient, pork belly, is nicely represented here too, paired with mung beans and kimchee in a pancake topped with a runny hen egg.
You’ll also find an egg—this time, duck—in the dolsot bibimbap, a traditional Korean rice stew. In their version, Clark and Kim mix it up, depending on what ingredients they’re excited about. (Note: Ingredients, and even entire dishes, change often.) On my visit, chunks of albacore, escarole, barbecued onions and preserved lemon topped the rice, all served in a hot stone crock. Wait a few seconds before stirring to ensure there are some crispy bits of rice on the bottom, but not too long as to overcook the tender fish. Even more dramatic than that sizzling bowl of rice is the huge hot pot. “It’s like a Korean low-country boil,” said one of my dining companions as he ladled mussels, squid, squash, fennel, red-hued broth and some of the biggest heads-on prawns I’ve ever seen into his bowl. Messy, sure, but totally worth the effort.
More good news: You don’t have to be a meat- or fish-eater to appreciate Parachute. The dish of thin strips of yellow and green summer squash delicately folded over two rectangle-shaped Korean-style dumplings (mandu) stuffed with shiitakes and topped with toasted-almond slivers, is sure to please those who follow a vegetarian diet—and those who don’t.
Unlike at plenty of other restaurants, the momentum—and fun, for that matter—doesn’t slow down here with desserts. Tart, sweet, earthy and refreshing, Parachute’s black sesame tea cake paired with fresh blueberries, blueberry sorbet and a brown-butter powder is everything I could ask for in a dessert. “I want this for the rest of my life,” said one of my dinner mates in regards to the deeply flavorful sorbet. I feel the same way about Parachute, all the way around.
3500 N. Elston Ave., 773.654.1460
Open for dinner Tue.-Sat.
Snacks and small plates: $3-$8
Large plates: $10-$36
Come early; keep your party small (six is the maximum accepted here); and be open to sitting at both the communal table and eight-seat counter.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Vintage stereo speakers and radios get a chic second life as design elements hanging on a wall in the dining room.
Go With the Grain
Looking for something different to drink? Try the low-alcohol makgeolli (Korean rice wine), which is from Slow City Brewery in Niles, Ill.