Maxwells Trading, which opened in late December in West Town, serves “Chicago food, from children of the city,” according to its website. That raises a question I find of particular interest: What is Chicago food?

“It’s not just hot dogs and pizza,” chef-owner Erling Wu-Bower says with a laugh. “When you are a second-generation [immigrant] child raised in a big city in America, you have this ethnic food life. As a kid, I was awash in Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese food. And when you grow up here, you also go to Devon [Avenue], you eat at Le Bouchon, you eat red-sauce Italian.”

Listening to Wu-Bower, whose heritage is Chinese and Cajun, I had an aha moment. To love eating in Chicago is less about thrilling to the new flavors of first-generation Americans and more about that second-gen perspective. It’s about familiarity: knowing the city’s range of dining options, plain and fancy, and its international cuisines, your family’s included, to forge your own American palate. This is what The Bear gets so right: Chicago food happens in a crucible.

Wu-Bower made his name as a fresh talent at One Off Hospitality’s Avec and Nico Osteria and then at Pacific Standard Time, the now-shuttered restaurant he opened with business partner Josh Tilden and One Off. Maxwells Trading marks Wu-Bower and Tilden’s return, and excited fans who’ve missed Wu-Bower’s playful and utterly original cooking have kept the reservation book full. They may be surprised to find him, in jacket and tie, working the spacious, buzzy dining room as host. Though his fingerprints are all over the menu, he brought on executive chef Chris Jung as a collaborator and kitchen manager.

These two children of the city know no bounds in their culinary playground, and some of their creations are extraordinary — dishes I keep thinking about, dishes I want to experience again and again. As cooks, they paint in the most vivid colors, but what their art lacks is a frame. Though dining here is a blast, the food does not quite cohere into a meal. Still, do you want to try a sea bass tartare with peanut, coconut, and lemongrass? A smooshy bowl of fried eggplant with confit tomato? A Basque cake with apple butter? Come right this way.

Erling Wu-Bower and Chris Jung
Erling Wu-Bower and Chris Jung

Wu-Bower will be the first to admit this restaurant (named for his young son) is “esoteric,” not quite like anything else. It occupies the ground floor of a mixed-use building down a dead-after-dark side street near the Kinzie Industrial Corridor. The Roof Crop, an urban gardening firm, has built a sweet set of greenhouses and planters on top of the building, and if things go according to plan, those will keep the kitchen in produce. Inside, the beautiful bar, with slabs of live-edge wood set in concrete, is long enough for a gymnast to complete a floor routine. Around the corner lies an expansive brick-walled dining room with an open kitchen. It’s loud, but you can converse at tables that enjoy the luxury of space. The vibe isn’t neighborhoody at all but rather big-U Urban.

So is the wine list — an of-the-moment document, with wines grouped by style and with a symbol denoting “natural flavor profile” as a warning or enticement: your choice. Wu-Bower, who devised the list with beverage director Kristina Magro, is a fine pitchman. Take his suggestion and enjoy a bottle of Feints from Ruth Lewandowski, a chilled, super-juicy light red blend that has the acidity to make nice with the wild appetizer ride in store. You’ll soon be passing around lettuce wraps (filled with meaty lion’s mane mushrooms and five-spice tofu), prosciutto and cheese with fried bread, and a spot-on salad of chicories and citrus in buttermilk dressing.

Look at the menu: There’s a section called “Griddle Bread & Dunks” (which, by the way, is not the title of a Burt Reynolds buddy movie). You’ll get a spiel about how the puffy English-muffin-like thingamabobs are a cross between naan and scallion pancakes. They’re greasy to the touch but fun to dip into whipped ricotta with hot honey or a French onion dip that Wu-Bower calls an homage to Midwestern holiday parties.

The dining room at Maxwells Trading

Hit the right food and wine combo, and Maxwells becomes your new favorite restaurant. Try a Sicilian red Frappato from the great winemaker Arianna Occhipinti, and take the lid off a steamy clay pot holding melting pork belly, silken yuba strips, marinated shiitakes, and other goodies set over Koshihikari rice. The food angels will burst into song. Another standout is a rich lamb fazzoletti pasta with chile crunch that could claim a home in Bologna as easily as Xi’an. Also brilliant: turbot grilled on the bone and bathed in an umami-rich beurre blanc enhanced with kombu. Wu-Bower wants nothing more than to find the right wine for these dishes and watch you do a happy dance.

The problems happen when the shared plates are coursed out. That lamb pasta may have to compete with a brûléed sweet potato in a curry screaming with spices or molasses-roasted carrots sidling up to gummy spoonbread. As much as this restaurant talks a good vegetable game, its sweet tooth gets in the way. (Save your sugar fix for the great desserts made from recipes by Amanda Rockman, Nico Osteria’s former pastry chef.)

I’m piling on here, but it feels weird to end the savory portion of a meal that involves knives, forks, and a bottle of wine with steak lettuce wraps, and not very memorable ones, despite their many sauces. That got me thinking back to the bar. I bet all this eat-with-your-hands food would be better served by a cocktail. Indeed, Magro’s balanced creations — a brandy-kissed Sazerac, a Negroni with coffee-infused rum, a slew of martinis — remind you that you’re here as much for a fun time as a meal. You want to feel taken care of, to slurp up these punchy flavors, to get a nice buzz on. That may be the most Chicago thing of all.