Chef-scientist Homaro Cantu is literally known for playing with his food. At Moto, his high-end modernist cuisine laboratory, Cantu became renowned for cooking with such scientific tools as Class IV lasers and liquid nitrogen.
This March, the clever molecular gastronomist opened iNG (short for imagining new gastronomy), an affordable Asian eatery just a storefront away from Moto. And although scientific experimentation is part of iNG’s concept, it’s currently used more sparingly than at mother ship Moto.
That’s because Thomas Bowman, iNG’s executive chef, incorporates modernist techniques only where he sees fit. “We do dabble in it,” he says. “But we don’t make it the focus.”
Downstairs in the restaurant’s hidden kitchen, there is an exclusive table where diners can test iNG’s miracle berry menu. And soon the eatery will offer miracle berry cocktails on its outdoor patio. The flavor-tripping natural berry, which Cantu espouses, tricks the palate into tasting flavors differently than they are normally perceived. (Notably, Cantu began experimenting with the miracle berry to help reset the compromised taste buds of chemotherapy patients, who often detect metallic or rubbery flavors in their food.)
But in the main dining room, things are currently less outré, with Asian small plates filling iNG’s extremely brief seasonal menu. “We’re trying to promote flavor and not technique,” Bowman says. He uses modernist methods primarily for flavor enhancement. His version of udon ($12), for example, includes a “coconut encapsulation” that breaks open and gives the noodle dish added richness and flavor.
Cantu describes iNG’s menu as “inventive, affordable, interesting and delicious.” Divided into five cutesy sections — “cooliNG,” “heatiNG,” “boiliNG,” “meltiNG” and “sweeteniNG” — the menu features only three items per category. With most dishes in the $8-to-$12 range, the streamlined list was designed to encourage experimentation.
“It’s not a traditional experience where you get appetizers, entrees and desserts,” Bowman says.
“It’s not uncommon for people to say, ‘Send us out everything.’ ”
Diners can put their trust entirely in iNG by selecting “the cooking by the hour” option (prices vary, but are generally $45 per person for the first hour and $40 for the second). Here, chef-selected menu items are sent to the table at about a four-per-hour pace, Bowman says.
While dining upstairs at iNG recently with my friend Sheila (known as ma petite fleur), we opted to order on our own. Ma petite fleur, as she is ma petite fleur, did not want to walk out of iNG stuffed, so we selected six dishes between us.
But first, we were treated to an amuse-bouche of white miso soup. The soup shot came playfully wrapped in an origami box created from iNG’s paper menu, and we delightedly opened it per our waiter’s exacting instructions.
From the cooliNG section we selected poke ($10). The ultra-fresh tuna was served with a terrifically intense avocado mousse, wasabi sticky rice and a black-and-white sesame wonton. Our boiliNG pick was the flavorful konbu ($11). Seasoned with braised lemongrass and ginger, the konbu’s mildly spicy kimchi broth came loaded with popped kale, shitake mushrooms, braised seaweed and a 63° soft egg.
The meltiNG section features entrée-style dishes — we chose cod ($20) and duck ($22). Since our visit, the restaurant has changed over to its spring menu and is currently offering new takes on our fish and fowl dishes. However, we enjoyed the sautéed duck with kale, longganisa sausage and a puri flatbread, as well as slightly sweet cod flavored with shiso herb and lemongrass and accompanied by an edamame and shrimp-filled dumpling in fish fume broth.
We closed with two sweeteniNGs: the no-longer-available matcha tiramisu and smoky lapsang souchong ice cream ($8), and the restaurant’s signature liquid nitrogen frozen waffle ($9). During our visit, the whimsical waffle was served with espresso stout maple syrup and topped with a pat of mango-coconut sorbet. The current incarnation is an intriguing Boston cream doughnut version, which I am curious to try.
“We add our own little twists,” Bowman says. “It’s not your traditional [Asian] menu by any means.
“Ultimately, our food has to taste good — but it also has to be fun.”
951 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607