I first read about Sunda New Asian while perusing a list of Chicago’s 10 most ridiculous Blood Marys, in which Sunda had, hands down, the craziest variation of everyone’s favorite brunch cocktail. All it took was a quick glance of the picture and I just knew I had to try it sooner or later. Thus, I made sure to make Sunda my last stop in the city after a grueling day of TESOL-related lectures. That 32oz. Sumo Mary prepared with Absolut Chicago Vodka (flavored with rosemary and olives) garnished with Chinese broccoli, loompya stick, herb-roasted potatoes, Oshinko, tocino grilled cheese, baked snow crab hand roll, duck bao, braised pork belly, and three slices of bacon was going to be MINE!
Or not, because the Sumo Mary is available only during their Sunday Brunch from 10:30am-4:00pm, which meant that I was just about an hour late to the party. The $40 price tag is also a thing, but let is serve a mental reminder of the prices that you’ll pay should you decide to pay Sunda a visit. Hey, no one said that a fusion of East Asian culinary tradition and Old World fanciness and wine catered to the appetite of the New World would be cheap, right? Wear something nice, maybe even dine NOT alone, so that you can share all the magnificent dishes and libations with your date.
Boy was I glad that I decided to wear something nice that day! I was smart enough to make a 7:30 reservation, but decided to swing by a couple hours early just to check out the scene, you know? And I ended up staying. There were plenty of open tables at the time, but by the time the clock struck six the place came to live. Sunda’s menu is enormous, especially their list of wines, so if you’re a fan of the grape juice prepare to spend a good amount of time geeking out at all the possibilities. I didn’t. Before I start with the meat and potatoes of my review, I really want to stress the awesomeness of Sunda’s staff. The waitresses really seem to know their stuff and because I was dining by myself I was able to overhear a lot of very enthused and erudite descriptions of the venue’s various wines and dishes. I was almost tempted to pick up a bottle of whatever.. Almost. 😉
Kimchi Soup – pork belly, tofu, bok choy, sprouts, scallions ($13)
I’m a big, though recent, fan of kimchi. Sunda’s menu is very vibrant and I found myself juggling quite a lot of potential “first course” choices such as the Kale and Seaweed Salad, Grilled Ahi Tuna and Pork Salad or even the Pancit Canton Noodles, though ultimately the spicy call of the Kimchi Soup was what prevailed. It arrived in a very hot, cast iron bowl, but I was able to smell it before I even saw it. The soup is (I think?) a variant of the Korean pa kimchi, which is made with green onions (aka scallions). Actually, the combination of crunchy greens represented by the scallions and the bok choy, mixed with all the fresh sprouts was kind of amazing and a neat way to make this soup last longer, which is a good thing, because it was really hot and spicy. The MVP, however, was the pork belly. Serious flavor here in the form of a couple very large cubes, which are just enough to add their flavor to the bouillon and the gigantic pieces of tofu hiding beneath the canopy of veggies. Everyone loves bacon, though in reality that love should be directed towards the pork belly, which has all the greatness of bacon and so much more. I also think I saw a couple strands of curly cabbage at the very bottom of the bowl, but I’m not really sure. This is a savory and seriously piquant dish, which had me stopping for a big gulps of water. In my opinion, it straddles the line between a larger appetizer and an actual main course meal. If it came with some simple steamed, white rice it would hit the spot, though a couple slices of thick, white bread would also do the trick. My suggestion is to order this with a side of Jasmine Rice ($3) or Brown Rice ($4). I’m glad I had this. It was a great way to chase the last cold days and embrace the spring.
Don Julio Negroni – Tequila Don Julio Reposado, Campari, Carpano Antica, chai spices, orange zest ($16)
The dark, amber-colored tequila Don Julio Reposado with hints of citrus and cinnamon replaces the gin in this variation of the classical Negroni and the Carpano Antica sweet vermouth adds some notes of mint and dark fruits. This was my first Negroni and I was very impressed, especially by the pleasant red color and the way it was garnished with pieces of orange peel along the walls of the glass and even below the ice. All the flavors combined really well with the orange and the burn of the tequila reminding you that this is an aperitif and not a fruity drink. I can definitely see how gin would stack up to this alternative and will be ordering Negronis in the future.
Unagi/Foie – freshwater eel tempura, seared foie gras, yuzu unagi sauce ($16)
This tempura-style sushi combines Japanese deep-fried freshwater eel (unagi) with the French delicacy of fattened duck liver (foie gras). Definitely expensive for sushi, especially for two pieces, but I really wanted to try this. It was my first time eating foie gras, but combining foie gras with eel has always been a “culinary” idea of mine, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the menu. The Unagi/Foie was a delight to eat and very rich in flavor and pleasantly soft in texture. Almost soothing to the palate. The foie gras had an almost beefy taste to it, with notes of iron which meshed really well with the fatty eel and the citrus hints of the yuzu unagi sauce. Oh, an sesame seeds, because why not! It was definitely an experience, which (like most of Sunda’s items) is obviously meant to be shared. I’d recommend it, if just to tell the tale. A decent substitute for dessert? Why not?
Grass Tiger – Jalapeño-infused Ransom Old Tom gin, Gosling’s Ginger Beer, lime juice, orange juice, lemongrass syrup, spanked fresh mint ($14)
Decided to end the night with the bang with the Grass Tiger, which was recommended to me by the waitress, which was more of a reassurance than a suggestion, really. Oh, man! One of the greatest things about gin is that it goes so well with so many oddball ingredients. Jalapeño-infused gin! The Grass Tiger was surprisingly and strangely refreshing and the jalapeño infusion was not just a hint or a note – it was definitely in there as evidenced by the little jalapeño seeds floating on top of the cocktail, and the slices of jalapeño and lime pierced by a wooden sword. This was packed with refreshing ingredients. The ginger beer, the citrus juices complimenting the Ransom Old Tom gin, the mint and the lemongrass syrup – they all just combined so well. I kind of wish they sold Grass Tiger in bottles. If you go to Sunda’s, definitely grab a Grass Tiger between meals or before you ask for the check, because I doubt you’ll find its doppelganger anywhere else.
Overall, my first experience at Sunda New Asian was a blast. The place is definitely overpriced, or at least kind of out of my league. Good for those special occasions and even greater if you have someone willing to try new things and share. Going to Sunda’s is all about experiencing new food and drinks and getting “fed” is just an added bonus. Definitely, definitely sign up for their Rockit Ranch Guest Loyalty Program ($5), which gives you a $10 Credit for every 100 Points Earn (1 point = 1$ spent) in additional to some other exciting option such as the 10,000 Points “Chef’s Tables at a Rockit Ranch Venue” reward, which is a Dinner for up to 8 people hosted by a Rockit Ranch chef. I mean, if that’s your thang. Card works at a total of 6 Chicago-based restaurants and nightclubs, so use that as excuse to check them out. I know I will.