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Embeya and its chef, Thai Dang
There are countless ways to fail in the restaurant business but only two clear paths to success. You can give people what they want so consistently and abundantly that quality becomes immaterial (see Garden, Olive). Or—and this is a lot trickier—you can add something new to the conversation. This needn’t be anything earthshattering, like a 12-course intravenous tasting menu or convincing diners of the similarities between, say, Argentina and Indonesia. But you better find a niche and nail it, or no one is going to be interested.
BellyQ is taking the second path, and it’s bound to succeed. Thanks to a partnership with Michael Jordan, Bill Kim—who does fast-casual noodles and dumplings at Urbanbelly and faster-casualer Asian-Latin sandwiches at Belly Shack—finally gets the big audience he deserves in the former One Sixtyblue space. The 200-seat operation has been imagined as an accessible version of the beloved Korean barbecue grime holes on West Lawrence Avenue, without the punitive service or sheen of grease that covers all objects, animate and inanimate. Kim, who was a sous chef at Charlie Trotter’s by the age of 26, has higher ambitions. BellyQ’s catch phrase is “tradition amplified,” and Kim wants to turn the place into a hub for soulful Asian cooking: Think Yusho or Slurping Turtle times ten.
And that’s exactly what is happening. BellyQ launched in August with a firm handle on its kitchen and a good knowledge of its patrons. The sprawling room’s industrial-chic elements straddle the line between calculated (grill tables, to-go counter) and giddy (karaoke room, wall of living moss); conversations bounce off a high ceiling adorned with balloon-shaped lights made of glass bottles, creating a chamber of buzz-saw white noise. Tradition ain’t the only thing amplified.
Each section of the laser-focused menu harbors at least one instant classic. From “Belly Bites,” there’s Thai-style fried chicken: crispy triple-battered boneless thighs, supple and moist in a tangy lemongrass-basil chili sauce. Among salads, the leader is chilled soba noodles with marinated Chinese eggplant, fried shallots, and plump shrimp poached in olive oil— a brilliant combination of tastes and textures. Under “Wood Burning Oven,” Kim finds a home for savory Asian pancakes like his mom’s. The showstopper, topped with kimchi, mixed greens, and double-smoked Nueske’s bacon, has more in common with crisp boutique pizza than with the soft pajeon at most Korean barbecues. Even tofu hot pots—words roughly as exciting as “accrual-based accounting”—are creamy stunners, particularly one stocked with pork belly, rice cake, mushroom, and zucchini. BellyQ gave me what I wanted before I knew I wanted it.
Bland-sounding sides, like spinach and Chinese sausage with a mound of red quinoa, manage to produce fireworks on the tongue. I didn’t care for Peter Vestinos’s saccharine craft cocktails: You don’t get a pass just because you use exotic ingredients like aloe. Desserts, though, are soft-serve ice creams of coconut water and milk placed smartly atop granita-like layers of things such as huckleberry ice—an improvement over traditional Thai shaved ice. If only the service were as satisfying. On one visit, wait staff were prompt and endearing; on another, our guy was so disinterested we thought he might text us the bill.
No review of BellyQ is complete without addressing the grill tables. My take: Don’t bother. You can get the same marrowy charred short ribs elsewhere in the restaurant without the hassle. In the shadows cast by low-hanging ventilation hoods, staffers can’t see what they’re doing, even after attaching a magnetic night–light. And when the built-in infrared grill slides closed, a knob on top makes the placement of dishes perilous. But these little flaws aside, BellyQ proves that Bill Kim is not simply a man who knows which way the wind is blowing. Right now, he is the wind.
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Photograph: Anna Knott