CHICAGO - Pilsen continues to see signs of new development. From the stately Thalia Hall to restaurants reaching beyond the neighborhood's tradition of Mexican and Czech.
One of those new restaurants is serving food with a more global approach, at a level as high as anything downtown, but at a fraction of the cost.
Fatty, generous slices of Japanese hamachi are sliced and plated with fresh bits of cucumber, avocado and drizzled with black sesame ponzu and chili oil; puffed rice and finishing salt give it added texture. Not the kind of dishes you're used to seeing in Pilsen, but crowds have been eager to try what chef Stephen Gillanders has been up to since he left Intro in Lincoln Park, and opened S.K.Y. a few months ago.
"It stands for Seon Kyung Yuk, which is my wife's name," said Gillanders. "It's actually not an Asian restaurant. It's very travel-inspired. I think the misconception comes from the fact that a lot of my travels have been in Asia. So we definitely lean heavily in that part of the cuisine."
Hence, that Japanese hamachi starter.
"California meets ceviche meets Hamachi," he said.
"I took some black sesame seeds and simmered them until they were really tender. Then we drained them, added them to the ponzu and they kind of soaked up the ponzu they were in and gave that popping quality."
Foie gras is seared in a hot pan, but its rendered fat is used to coat a hot stone bowl, into which white rice is added. Then comes the vegetables.
"We have oyster mushrooms, but those are marinated in a bulgogi marinade," said Gillanders. "Currently we're using charred broccolini as the vegetable component."
And scallions, as well as crispy Japanese nori, or seaweed, and finally, that fatty-rich lobe of seared foie, that's been rubbed in some dried sesame and chili.
For his salmon, Gillanders brushes his with cornstarch and egg white, then presses it into phyllo dough shards, cooking that side slowly in a pan with oil. The resulting dish is served with broccolini and a sauce of assertive sambal butter poured tableside.
"It's a shingle of jagged pieces of phyllo and we only apply it on one side. I like to have some textural complexity in my proteins. Usually it comes from skin," he said.
Like a lot of chefs, Gillanders likes to work within the seasons but some dishes will change and some dishes won't. For example, the bibimbop - that dish stays the same, but the components inside will change, the mushrooms the broccolini, etc. The Hamachi, however, isn't changing whatsoever, it's become an instant classic here at the restaurant.
EXTRA COURSE: One of the desserts on the menu at S.K.Y. combines a crème brulee with a cheesecake.
Extra Course: S.K.Y. dessert delight
1239 W. 18th St., Chicago