Friday, January 29, 2010

Chilam Balam

My first review of a Chicago place in a while, since I've been traveling. I'll first say that I can see why it has 100% approval in Urbanspoon and high marks on Yelp. It also took over 30 minutes to get a table at 9pm on a Thursday night, so the locals are voting with their feet/checks too. Add the fact that it's BYOB, no reservations and cash only makes it all the more impressive. 

We had a relatively quick meal, only four small plates AND a bottle of wine. The place was packed as usual and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Since the space is small, conversation noise is high, especially when you pour your own drinks. The menu was surprisingly small, but it's also seasonal so maybe I should come back in the spring/summer. However, sometimes a smaller menu makes decisions easier, especially when dealing with small plates. 

We started with the guacamole ($6.50) and corn masa memelas ($8.50), with the idea of doing vegetarian starters. The memelas are topped with smokey black bean puree, goat cheese, arbol chile salsa and dressed greens.

 Corn masa memelas

Now everything was fine, which may have been the problem. Expectations were high, reasonable or not, but when I finished I realized that I did not really want to order those dishes again. The guacamole was fine, but nothing to write home about and the memelas tasted like black beans and feta cheese without additional flavors from the rest of the ingredients. Nothing was bad, just not meeting sky high expectations and not passing the "I want to order that again" test. 

We ordered two more dishes, also from the small dish selection, jumbo shrimp and pork belly. These were definitely more impressive and what I would guess more representative of the kinds of dishes receiving high acclaims. 

Pork belly

Jumbo Shrimp

The pork belly dish was nice, full of flavor that you expect from pork and the butternut squash and sauce really made the flavors exciting. I'm not a huge fan of pork belly but this was very well prepared. In the end though, we saved the best for last with the shrimp. It was the only plate I would have ordered again. They served the shrimp with tortillas to make a taco, and it went down great. The light sauce was salty, but it in a good way that enhanced the flavors. There were also small potatoes served on the side.
I know I only had four dishes, but only one was truly great. For all the praise and hype and waiting for 30 min at 9pm, I was let down slightly. I can see the talent and the creativity in the preparations. Maybe I wasted two selections on vegetarian starters that aren't quite necessary. The problem though is that I'm not enthusiastic to wait again for table to try and order right. I feel that most great restaurants shine through on a majority of the dishes, not the other way around. Again, I can see where everyone is coming from, and the experience is likely enhanced by the cult atmosphere surrounding the restaurant. I give it 3/5 this time around, but I recognize the high potential for future visits.

Chilam Balam on Urbanspoon

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