Jaeneung (Talent) Will Find a Way

Michael Nagrant / 04.25.19

You don’t really know Nikola Tesla. If you think you do, then you probably think he invented the electronic car, or he’s the front man who sang “Love Song” (LOOOVE WILL FIND A WAAAY!) in Tesla, a band that toured with Poison on their 1989 Open Up and Say… Ahh! tour.  If you’re the latter, you also probably told all your friends that Poison’s blonde-locked mascara-eyed shredding-guitarist, C.C. DeVille had studied at Julliard before joining the band. Because Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet (J.K.), Wikipedia didn’t exist, and because every rose has its thorn, your friends believed you. Now that you’re a journalist, you double checked that fact and found that DeVille actually studied music theory at NYU, which, while still impressive for a hair band rocker, is not as mythical.

While you don’t really know much about Tesla, you do know all about Thomas Edison. You know he invented the lightbulb (nope, that was Davy) and x-rays (also, no, Röntgen), moving pictures (nada, Louis Le Prince) and the phonograph (technically this was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, but we can give this one to Edison since his phonograph reproduced sound audibly, while Martinville’s etched sound visually – turns out most people don’t want to see music).

The reason you know Edison, is because his real skill was capturing the imagination and/or commercializing the ideas of others. He was also a fame vacuum, and taskmaster, channeling the efforts of others, often at great costs, to achieve success.

One of Edison’s worker bees was Tesla, who alleged in his own bio, that the manager of the Edison Machine Works offered a $50,000 bonus to design “twenty-four different types of standard machines”, “but it turned out to be a practical joke”. After Tesla had worked feverishly to achieve this task, he was told there was no bonus. Pained by the failed promise, and alleged ridicule by Edison, Tesla left the company.

Even though you don’t know much about Tesla, you should. He’s remarkable. He was arguably smarter than Edison in a technical sense and has had as much, or more, impact on the world as Edison. Tesla’s development of AC current is the backbone of our modern electrical grid. His wireless work led to the invention of radio (Marconi mostly gets credit for this – poor Tesla), and the development of Wifi.

Ever the ruthless showman, Edison, in his efforts to promote his own DC power scheme over Tesla’s AC, a battle known as the War of the Currents, electrocuted cats, dogs, elephants, and people. That’s right, Edison invented the electric chair and everyone still loves him. Though DC current can also kill you, Edison used Tesla’s AC current to zap convicted killer William Kemmler to death in 1890 in the hopes that it would scare people in to rejecting AC current as a means of building civic power grids.

Edison probably would have succeeded in his efforts if Tesla was acting alone, but he’d partnered with George Westinghouse, a man who had an Edisonian-level of promotional and business talent.  While AC power succeeded, Tesla still foundered throughout his life, dying poor in a hotel room paid for by Westinghouse.

Not only was Tesla a bad storyteller. He thought he was smarter than everyone else (he probably was), which never plays well, unless you’re Stephen Hawking. Tesla also grew battier as he aged. He detested pearls so much that he refused to talk to women wearing them. He claimed to receive messages from aliens and had a Howie Mandel-sized aversion to touching other human beings.

Which is to say, it’s not enough to be a great genius. Self-promotion, storytelling, making the right moves at the right time in the right scene, and not talking to extraterrestrials, is the difference between achieving eternal fame and falling in to obscurity.

This brings me to chef Dave Park of Jeong restaurant. He is not crazy, as far as I know. Like Tesla he is mad talented, but outside of food circles, relatively unknown.  I knew who he was from his incredible work at Hanbun, a modest Korean food stall located in a suburban Chicago mall. With this in mind, I hailed him last year as one of my best bets to reinvigorate Chicago as a hub of culinary innovation. The problem is, even though I was high on him, I made a mistake and referred to him in the piece as Dave Cook, because I had subconsciously been thinking about his Instagram handle: @dave_cook_love.

Hanbun closed because mall maintenance issues made the restaurant untenable. It was successful. Park and his partner Jennifer Tran had to cancel over 100 reservations when it shuttered.

However, as charming as the serving world class food in a mall food court in suburban Westmont story was, Park was going to have a tough time resonating beyond foodie circles to become a household name. 

And listen, I love the suburbs. I am a product of suburbs. Like Ben Folds, I rocked them. The Chicago suburbs have some of the best Indian Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants in all of Illinois, but for better or worse, they are often beyond the gaze of the mainstream. As Edison knew, the big win comes in finding the big stage, taking it, and killing with an incredible show. Fair or not, Chicago is the god damn big top.

Whether or not Park and Tran buy this, they have now opened Jeong in the heart of the city in the old Green Zebra space, a restaurant which did quite a number for the career of current Las Vegas-based restaurateur Shawn McClain. Notably, Stephanie Izard, her supreme goatness, got her big start working for McClain at his now defunct spot, Spring.

There is no overarching restaurant group behind Jeong, but they do share some common investors with Kumiko and Oriole including partner Mike Fishman. Fishman described the arrangement like this: “Remember in the 90’s when Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, etc. formed Native Tongues? Like that, but with truffles.” He added, “Except we don’t have a name for the crew. That analogy might suck. We just share [some] investors.”

While the three restaurants stand on their own and reflect the visions of their chef/bartender partners, it’s safe to say these partners have incredible taste. Since they’ve invested in some of the best growing talent in Chicago like Noah and Cara Sandoval at Oriole and Julia Momose at Kumiko, it feels like a tipoff that Jeong too should be great.

Another harbinger of the meal to come is that Jeong serves Sparrow coffee. This might seem trivial, but in Chicago right now that’s a pretty good predictor of restaurant success.  Sparrow owner Chris Chacko selects his clients, rather than the other way around. If he thinks your food might suck, he won’t sell to you. Not only won’t he sell to you, he might anonymously drag your restaurant on Twitter.

I will not bag on the salmon at Jeong. It’s a pretty-in-pink assortment, a made-for-instagram, edible supermodel of jewel-like salmon cubes, rice cracker bits (which pop like caviar), frilly nasturtium (scallion in an earlier version as pictured below), and dainty dabs of crème fraiche. I regard salmon the way that Trump suspects state dinners not catered by McDonald’s. Salmon is over-farmed, generally mushy, and tasteless. My encounters with great salmon are rare, so, like chicken, I generally avoid it. I am glad that I am forced by Park’s tasting menu to eat it, because it is silky and sweet and serves as an incredible conveyance of crunch and citrus. The whole plate looks like a Charlie Trotter ring mold-shaped throwback from 1999 (this is a good thing – ring molds are cool again).

Photo Courtesy Jeong/Hahm Visuals

I am less enchanted with a bowl of silken tofu topped with broken bits of black rice, nubs of king crab and chili braised fern. The flavors are as harmonious as John and Paul, but the textures and ingredients, a whole bunch of seafood, cream and crunch, ape the salmon dish too closely. In a seven-course tasting menu, repetition is not a luxury.

A caramelized scallop raft floats in a sea of clementine beurre blanc. A stump of verdant spinach lies in the distance. This spinach turns out to be like a super fancy vegetable pastry-like layered roll-up of wafer-thin buttery spinach leaves. It’s impossible not to regard each delicate leaf with your tongue, kind of the oral equivalent of rubbing the edge of a deck of cards with your finger. I know this sounds like a passage in a bodice-ripper romance novel, but I assure you this spinach thing, which is called a namul (typical banchan dish at Korean BBQ) is indeed sexy as hell.

There is a choose-your-own-assemblage dish, a trio of corn tea and soy glazed duck, exquisitely rare and pinker than Taylor Swift’s Insta feed, funky house-cured kimchi, and yulmoo rice. The rice is plump grained, glistening, and intoxicating. Once I eat the duck and kimchi, I gobble the remaining unadorned rice with the munchies abandon of a frat boy at the end of 4/20 day.

There is also a hunk of obligatory Wagyu beef, but the star here is not cow, but a cloud-like sunchoke fritter which I dip in truffle emulsion.

Because I am friends with former competitive eater Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, owner of Lincoln Square restaurant Taco in a Bag, I know that despite the fact that my stomach is at capacity and I feel how the Michelin man looks, I can push through to a second wall of fullness to accommodate my desire to also supplement the pre-fixe menu I just ate with a bowl of juk from Jeong’s a la carte menu. I do not have a Korean grandma, but if I did, she would not make such a glorious barley porridge larded with uni and more shrooms than a Phish show.

A Korean black raspberry wine (bok bun ja) sorbet/granita pokes out of a ginger shortbread round. The whole thing looks like a boob. If you’re not a 16 year-old-boy, and maybe a florist, it also looks like the floret and petals of an intriguing new flower. Either way, the shortbread is shattery, and the sorbet is cleansing.

This dessert is followed by the best thing I eat all night, a dish I call “if Proust were Korean”. Our server tells us that this dish represents the omnipresent kitchen scents of Park’s childhood.  A buttery financier suffused with nooks and crannies fords ponds of dwenjang or fermented soy caramel, and chocolate. The whole thing is dolloped with smoked chestnut cream. This salty, gooey, and creamy mélange is a Korean mic drop to the challenges of the best sea-salt infused chocolate chip cookie.

Service is not bad at Jeong. But, food of this level is usually accompanied by anticipatory and warm hospitality. Folks celebrating birthdays at nearby tables were gifted with cupcakes, a smart touch. But most dishes were dropped off swiftly, with a cool accounting of ingredients. The exception was when Jennifer Tran, who runs the front of the house, swooped in with a gregarious warmth and shared the story of Park’s childhood with respect to the final dessert.

But these are trifles. That Park has managed to make chestnuts and sunchokes ridiculously desirable is a mark of true talent. He is, I believe, on his way to Edisonian heights.

Jeong is located at 1460 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago