People like to chirp about how Chicago dining is as good as New York City’s. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it isn’t. Oiistar, a new Japanese noodle spot in Wicker Park, is trying to stake a claim for Chicago, but it still has a ways to go. For now, New York, with Ippudo and Momofuku, still wins the ramen restaurant battle.
The honeyed woods and the long row of counter seating outfitted with square, backless chairs at Oiistar, is almost a carbon copy of the decor at Momofuku noodle bar. The food and service at Oiistar is not.
Once seated at the bar it takes about 10 minutes for a server to bring a menu, and there’s another long wait for her to take my order. Water glasses show up sometime after course one. That course, fried garlic chicken, also cools for at least five minutes before anyone notices we do not have flatware.
Servers spend a lot of time chatting near the bar rather than attending to guests. When my wife asks about a Riesling, the waitress warns that it’s too sweet. She guides her instead to a Gewurztraminer that is also fairly syrupy.
You’d think sitting at the kitchen counter within feet of the line cooks would ameliorate this, that one of them would take pity and notice we are desperately in need of chopsticks, or that as our food sits waiting at the pass for missing servers, that they could hand the dishes over themselves? They do not. About every five minutes, executive chef Sunny Yim yells that there’s a hot bowl of ramen ready for pick-up. Sometimes it gets picked up. Sometimes he has to repeat himself.
I understand his urgency. His noodles are made with a $65,000 machine imported from Japan. He worked for five years on his “Oiimen” house ramen made with pork-backbone broth and filled with woodsy tree ear mushrooms, runny egg, lean pork loin, spicy chili oil and garlic. Unfortunately the noodles are flimsy, lacking a satisfying spring. The broth needs salt, more body and some funk. The loin, while tender, is fairly flavorless and could be chicken. You can order a fattier cut of pork belly for a $1.50 upcharge, and you should, but beware, on one of my visits they ran out.
The sins of the ramen are mostly forgiven by many of the other small appetizer plates. Fried garlic chicken is flaky, juicy to the bone, tossed with sesame seeds and bathed in a sweet soy sauce that recalls the excellent poultry served at Crisp in Lake View. Spicy pork ribs are coated in sriracha, scallion and crispy shallots. These sweet and spicy sticks may be some of the better non-smoked ribs in the city. I wanted to double-check this observation, but my wife liked the ribs so much, she stole most of mine.
Good thing I had the duck breast buns to fall back on — soft dumpling pockets stuffed with rich, rare meat drizzled with a jalapeno chutney whose fire was well-tempered with plump, juicy golden raisins and grassy, crisp micro-greens.
Speaking of greens, though the Oii salad featuring fanned sliced cucumbers looked like the cheesy work of an ’80s-era nouveau cuisine-skewing chef, the crunchy cuke, the peppery arugula, the creamy parmesan and the pop of fresh dill was refreshing.
The wine-poached pear stuffed with Chantilly cream, which is pretty much straight out of the old Charlie Trotter cookbooks (save for some candied ginger) was undercooked and tough. And while creme brulee, topped with espresso “caviar” — tiny coffee-flavored bubbles — was a thoughtful twist on the classic, a noodle joint can’t thrive on custard alone.
1385 N. Milwaukee; (773) 360-8791; www.oiistar.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.