Martha Stewart better watch out, because not only can Guan Chen, chef of Guan Restaurant, likely cook circles around her, but he’s got serious interior-design chops. While many Asian spots hew to a palette of kanji-based calligraphy, porcelain and black lacquer, Chen outfitted his Evanston storefront with homey naturalistic touches, including a mini rock garden and a wall-mounted forest of birch branches. He complements this natural aesthetic with sleek, modern leather chairs and window panels etched with geometric cherry blossoms.
Once you enter this modern womb, you won’t want to leave its cozy warmth. The gracious, attentive service of Guan’s wife, Yan, doesn’t hurt either. But getting people to stay isn’t the problem; it’s getting customers in the door. Even though the restaurant just celebrated its first anniversary, on a recent Friday night at 7pm only two tables were filled. “We had to change our name from Ninefish, because someone else held the trademark,” Yan says. “It took us two months to get a new sign, and many old customers did not come after that.”
The name has changed, but Guan’s detailed, inspired Asian fusion cuisine has not. While pan-Asian is usually code for culinary jack-of-all-trades yet master of none, everything here—from glistening, crispy-skinned Peking duck to whole fried snapper smothered in a garlic, jalapeño and basil sauce—is better than the stuff you’d find at most Chinese and Thai–only restaurants. The real treat comes when Guan gets creative with moves like stuffing fatty white tuna maki with raspberries and drizzling the roll with white truffle oil, deftly merging his Asian roots with New American touches.
2426 Main Street, Evanston (847-328-9177). El: Purple to Main. Bus: 200 Main Shuttle. Lunch and dinner. Average main course: $19.
This article first appeared in Time Out Chicago in a different form.