I lived in Andersonville for 12 years, so I’m pretty familiar with 5420 North Clark Street. The notorious storefront space, ostensibly a prime slice of real estate on a high-traffic strip, devours business concepts the way Beelzebub consumes souls. Since 2009, it has housed the wine bar In Fine Spirits, which the neighborhood loved; Premise, which it hated for not being In Fine Spirits; Brasserie 54 by LM, which it mostly ignored; the Brixton, which it tolerated for three years; and Taverna 750, which wasn’t open long enough for anyone to realize it existed.
Now the space houses Passerotto. When it opened in May, I had to ask myself: A small-plates Korean restaurant drawing heavily from Italy, serving linguistically questionable dishes such as cacciucco soondubu and seolleongtang tortelloni, and somehow succeeding in a doomed location where no one’s gotten rich — and everyone’s died trying? I didn’t see it happening. Still, I had to admit that if anyone has what it takes to slay the restaurant sinkhole that is 5420 North Clark, it is chef-partner Jennifer Kim. A graduate of Kendall College and an alum of Blackbird, she learned the art of cured fish at Nico Osteria and perfected it at Snaggletooth, her tiny seafood deli that closed in 2017.
The deep 42-seat room, which my wife always said looked like a hipster bowling alley, still has the same pressed-tin ceiling, exposed brick walls, and tiled floor as before. But Kim remodeled much of the rest. She sprinkled personality here and there: family photos, tiger-shaped pillows, hanbok dresses from her childhood as the daughter of Korean immigrants. The overall vibe is breezy, kitschy, and fun.
As for the food, it’s next-level stuff. Sweet wild scallops are sliced cellophane thin, then bathed in a homemade XO sauce, sprinkled with tiny phlox flowers, and arranged around a brisk soy-onion purée. Pickled lime kosho, mint, and gooseberries lend little bursts of flavor and color to glistening hunks of hamachi the size of matchbooks. And I can’t remember a better treatment of raw ingredients than Kim’s combination of firm yellowfin tuna with heirloom corn, hijiki, Thai chili, and crisp potato slivers. A needier chef might have gone in a brasher direction with compositions like these in a desperate bid for your attention. Instead, Kim quietly commands it.
Depending on who you’re talking to, Korean fried chicken is either up and coming or over and done, but Passerotto’s Pelicana chicken proves, if nothing else, that the conversation is far from finished. A play on the fowl at a beloved South Korean chain, Kim’s sweet-crisp version gets a little spark from pickled cauliflower and Calabrian chili oil. Charred shishito peppers are given a brilliant twist: They’re boosted with smoked tofu, oxalis leaves, and a creamy bagna cauda that subs in doenjang, a fermented soybean paste, for the usual anchovies.
A well-trained staff keeps things moving along, even when some of the East-West mind melds miss their mark. I scratched my head at the competing flavors in a dish of cavatelli paired with nori butter, garlic scapes, fried Japanese sweet potato, and pickled shallots—a cacophony that never quite resolved into anything. But the tteokbokki shows you why Kim pursued a bridge between Italy and Korea. She sears six dense, finger-size rice cakes in a cast-iron pan to give them a crisp edge, then layers on a punchy lamb neck ragu. The overall impression is of a more satisfying version of gnocchi in which the noodle and the sauce finally compete on a level plane. Elsewhere, Korea and Japan engage in a spirited dialogue. The hearty hwe dup bap with sashimi and pickled ginger — basically a sashimi bibimbap that’s equal parts sweet, spicy, and tangy — has farro mixed in with the white rice. “Growing up, my mom would try to sneak things like barley and oats into our rice to get us to eat healthier,” says Kim. Maybe Mom was onto something: The farro adds a toothsome, nutty depth.
Too many small-plates restaurants flail helplessly when it comes to larger offerings, but Passerotto’s items “for two” includes two instant classics. Served with rotating banchan (say, pickled scallions, potato salad, and soybean sprouts), the hamachi collar has been flash-fried just long enough to give the sesame-seed dry rub on top a little crunch, but not so long as to cause the rich yellowtail flesh to lose its flakiness. Tear off a chunk, wrap it in a perilla leaf, smear it with spicy ssamjang paste, and repeat blissfully. And it’s unlikely you’ve had galbi quite like Kim’s. She has Slagel Family Farm custom-slice short ribs two inches wide, then she sous-vides them for 15 hours, sears them on all sides, and bastes them in a concentrated glaze that’s like a superhero version of the marinades you’re used to at Korean barbecues. All along the marble bar, which has been repurposed as a double-sided communal table, people are plucking caramelized beef right off the bone and chasing it with Mama Kim’s pungent red cabbage kimchi.
For dessert, Passerotto goes full Italian, serving nothing but homemade cantuccini (Tuscan biscotti) that are meant to be dipped in passito, a sticky raisin wine that soaks into the almond biscuits. Meanwhile, an affordable wine list shares space with a short roster of local beers and creative cocktails. The Coalmine’s Canary (gin, Malört, Avèze, grapefruit, bergamot) answers the question, Can enough fancy mix-ins make a Malört cocktail palatable? The answer is no, though it’s a good effort. By the time the check arrives — mine folded into an advance review copy of a graphic novel — Passerotto has cast its spell.
Jennifer Kim may be destined for stardom, but she’s still in that honeymoon phase of responding to every Yelp review. She and her crew have brought more infectious enthusiasm to Andersonville than the space’s previous half-dozen occupants combined, and in doing so, she hasn’t simply chased out the ghosts. She’s broken the curse entirely.