First things first: Just because someone appears on Top Chef, or any of the other TV shows dedicated to making chefs look like conniving maniacs or hapless pushovers, does not mean that chef is any good. It means a casting director decided he or she fit the profile.
This unfairly raises the public’s expectations when these contestants return home. Some succeed, some fade; others find themselves scarred by the sudden fame. Chuy Valencia, 28, the Chilam Balam chef who made waves on Top Chef in 2011, spiraled downward and eventually moved back to California. Beverly Kim, who appeared on the same season as Valencia, says that her stint gave her posttraumatic stress disorder. “The competitiveness is intense—kind of like the terrifying feeling I had in high school,” says Kim, 34. “For a while I had nightmares.”
Which makes her new restaurant’s easygoing vibe all the more surprising. Parachute, Kim’s Korean American collaboration with husband and chef Johnny Clark, opened in May, full of personality and generosity. From the shelf of vintage speakers lining one wall—many salvaged from demolished buildings—to chamomile flowers foraged from Montrose Beach for a chocolate pudding over the summer, everything feels unique. Confident. Whatever the opposite of PTSD is, Parachute’s got it.
Chances are you’ll be seated at the high communal table running the length of the 1,500-square-foot storefront. Kim wanted it to feel like dining at a counter in “your brother’s cool pad.” But no way is your brother pan-frying his own bing bread in a cast-iron pot and embedding it with bacon, cheddar, and scallions, like a doughy-crispy loaded baked potato. Nor is he serving you a miraculously creamy pâté-like boudin noir with nam phrik (think chili sauce), spearmint, coconut yogurt, crispy rice, and a little endive salad on top. Unless your brother is Daniel Boulud vacationing in Bangkok.
Parachute finds the elusive sweet spot where challenging and comfortable flavors convene. Everyone loves pork ribs, especially when they’ve been pasted with honey and fall off the bone if you breathe on them too hard. Parachute pushes things upward by sneaking yuzu kosho (yuzu rind, salt, and green chili pepper) into the seasoning, and pretty soon you’re fighting your guests over the accompanying shiso leaves. Though I was disappointed by the pancake studded with garlicky pork belly and mung bean with a hen egg, the blazing (and ever-changing) dol sot bibimbap, stocked with tender short rib, foie gras dressing, mushrooms, and fresh kale, honored a familiar Korean dish. And elevated it.
It’s easy to love the hand-torn noodles. They cling to a cumin-punched lamb sofrito and produce a buzzy little tingle from numbing Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, Parachute’s menu—a progression of snacks, noodles, proteins, and feasts—gets so much right that you might skip the less sexy options. Potato-and-nettle croquettes, served on a scrap of Korean newspaper, sound about as sensual as Bill Gates. But when dipped in spicy plum sauce they’re just as rich. Even humble sesame leaves boast a fragile tempura batter and bourbon soy sauce: irresistible nibbles that dissolve on the tongue.
The menu’s centerpiece, a hulking hot pot topped with a forest’s worth of crown daisies, bobs with fresh Gulf shrimp, cherrystone clams so large they look straight out of a monster flick, chewy rice cakes, and microthin black radish slices. It’s a Korean clambake in a spicy blue crab broth. For a perfect antidote to the slow burn, drink a bottle of Slow City Makgeolli, a cold rice wine made by Baesangmyun Brewery in Niles. Looks like milk, tastes like thick sake.
Seasonal desserts, such as a muddled Napoleon filled with black sesame Bavarian cream, yuzu curd, and brown butter—part Bavarian, part Key lime pie—could use work. The enthusiastic waitstaff could not. They’re delightful. The noise escalates quickly, and herky-jerky pacing prolongs meals, but no one minds either. And Kim, eager to chat with customers, seems like the girl next door rather than a scarred TV personality. “Anything that runs you through the wringer like Top Chef, you’re going to grow from it,” says Kim. And she obviously has. Parachute is one of 2014’s most promising newcomers.
Chrissy Camba, who recently teamed with Franco Gianni to launch Laughing Bird in the old Tank Sushi space, is more pragmatic about her Top Chef spell in 2012. “I don’t think the show affected my cooking approach at all,” she says. “If it did, I think I always feel like I’m [being] timed.”
In a sense, she is. But while the dishes at Camba’s Filipino-inspired restaurant come out at a more predictable pace than those at Parachute, the food on them—and the overall experience—doesn’t leave as strong an impression. The dark room, with its empty spaces and giant quail mural on an exposed brick wall, feels unfinished and remote. So do the servers. They basically serve plates and disappear, neither detracting from the meal nor enhancing it.
That leaves Camba’s creations to survive on their own merits. Her menu begins with playful snacks that sound good but come up short. The wasabi-toned deviled eggs taste ridiculously oversalty; the empanadas stuffed with braised oyster mushrooms and Taleggio, served with a strong garlicky dipping sauce, are drier than an insurance conference in Arizona. Maybe these work better at the massive bar with a sweating Rhubarb Rickey. At a table, I’d skip the munchies and go straight to appetizers, several of which are wonderful.
Strata of crisp skin, glistening fat, and terrifically moist meat stack the lechon kawali, gorgeous cubes of pork belly with barely grilled watercress and Thai chili relish. Charred octopus painted with dinuguan sauce (a thick pork and blood purée) gets a kick from pickled banana peppers and a bite from Chinese broccoli. The result mixes delicacy with audacity the way all the best Asian dishes do. And Laughing Bird’s finest hour is a glorious lump of creamy Burrata with grilled spring onions and scallions. You slather it on Camba’s homemade pandesal (salt bread) with coconut jam, a beloved Filipino spread. It’s a goofy and brilliant combination.
Unfortunately, nothing else at Laughing Bird approaches those heights. Certainly not the flaccid chicken adobo with jasmine rice, pickled green papaya, and hot sauce. Nor the gritty Prince Edward Island mussels, which absorb few of the surrounding flavors of shrimp paste, tamarind, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves. The biggest disappointment, though, must be the traditional pancit palabok: a mess of thick rice noodles cooked in a seafood and pork sauce with head-on shrimp, chicharróns, roasted pork, smoked mackerel, and boiled egg. Camba does better when she’s not bound to tradition.
Desserts are all over the place. I liked the s’mores with toasted pandan marshmallow and shards of peanut brittle much more than this summer’s mushy rhubarb crisp, which looked like a pie someone had sat on.
Hard to tell what exactly Laughing Bird is after with this inconsistent menu, and the lack of diners on my visits seems to imply that no one else knows either. But the periodic flickers of promise tell me that if Camba focuses, this could become a special restaurant. Right now, it’s an enigma wrapped in a Manila clam.