This post was originally published on March 1, 2011.
Chef Edward Kim strongly believes that life’s obstacles make you stronger. That’s why he gave his first venture the head-scratching name Ruxbin, which references the hurtful “Teddy Ruxbin” playground taunts young Teddy Kim edured growing up in Suburban Chicago.
Kim’s philosophy seems particularly prescient now that his West Town restaurant, which he owns with his sister Vicki Kim and friend Jenny Kim, is one of Chicago’s most buzzed- about new eateries. After all, starting up a restaurant with an unknown chef on a shoestring budget in a lousy economy is surely comparable to running an obstacle course.
So what’s Kim doing that’s got everybody talking? I dare not label the intriguing dishes he’s creating in his loft kitchen as “Asian fusion,” the oh-so-‘80s term that the young Korean-American chef eschews. Indeed, Asian flavors (Korean, Japanese, Thai and Indian) pop up all over his inventive menu. But other cuisines – Mexican, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, etc. – are also represented, often on the very same plate.
“We call it ‘American contemporary,’ which allows us the freedom to just put what we think tastes good together on our menu,” says Kim, who employs the French cooking techniques he learned in culinary school at L.A.’s Le Cordon Bleu and honed in restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
Back in the old fusion days, chefs “were forced to combine different cultures on the plate. We only do it if it makes sense.”
Kim’s made-from-scratch dishes indeed pay tribute to America’s melting pot culture. On a recent visit to Ruxbin with my friend Louise, we munched on good old-fashioned popcorn sprinkled with furikake, a Japanese mix of seaweed, sesame seeds and more, while perusing the succinct menu. Served as an appetizer, quintessentially American house-cut French fries ($5) were seasoned with fresh garlic and accompanied by a side of smoky chipotle aioli.
The chef describes his culinary creations as “riffs on classical dishes.” Among his seven
appetizers, Kim offers crispy eggplant ($11), which is essentially an Indian-inspired Waldorf salad. The dish features roasted beets, cucumber and frisée in a citrusy honey-cardamom yogurt sauce. In what Kim calls a Spanish-style tapa, Calamari Bokkum ($12) combines the ever-popular seafood appetizer with Korean chili, peanuts, baby potatoes and sesame. The chef reinvents the classic French sandwich, Croque Monsieur ($10), by layering shaved ham and Gruyère cheese with roasted tomato, marmalade and olives.
Kim’s currently has six main courses on the menu. After much back and forth, Louise and I decided on hanger steak ($24) and pan-seared trout ($21) respectively. Juicy and flavorful, the steak was served with crispy greens (including basil and spinach), a spicy Korean kimchee potato hash, caramelized yolk and guajillo pepper ketchup. (A special thanks to Louise for letting me graze on her plate.) The asparagus-topped trout, one of Ruxbin’s top sellers, was presented on a bed of soft and crunchy bulgur wheat tabbouleh that was flecked with dates, basil and black sesame seeds. Satisfyingly salty-sweet, the dish deserves its own fan club.
Also on my short list was the braised short rib ($26) with Brussels sprouts, roasted tomato, gremolata and – Kim’s nod to Southern cuisine – goat cheese grits, as well as Nine Spice Quinoa ($16) with masala curry and veggies. But those will have to wait until my next visit.
Kim’s menu currently features two desserts: a berry shortcake with balsamic and crème Chantilly ($6), and a Thai spin on the Italian classic, panna cotta ($5). We opted for the creamy sweet-and-sour panna cotta with lychee and toasty toasted coconut, which provided a lovely ending to a lovely evening.
“I only know one way to do food, which tends to be labor intensive,” Kim says. “I put a lot of care into it….
“If a dish comes back half-eaten it’s heartbreaking, because I know how much labor went into it.”
A half-eaten dish of Kim’s cuisine? Perhaps I should invite that person to dine with me.
Please note that some dishes may have changed subsequent to the original publishing of this post.
851 North Ashland Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622