Laughing Bird

Michael Nagrant / 06.08.14

Have you ever wished you could eat at a place called the Tina Turner Tavern? If things go well for chef Chrissy Camba at new Lincoln Square restaurant Laughing Bird, you might just get your chance. “I grew up in a family where there was a lot of laughing and a lot of birds, so that’s how we got the name. But, the whole time I kept joking that we should name this place the Tina Turner Tavern. We’ll save that for the next one,” said Camba.

While Camba didn’t get to name the restaurant after the “Proud Mary” singer, the menu at Laughing Bird, filled with Filipino staples such as lumpia Shanghai (egg rolls, $6), chicken adobo ($18) and pancit (noodles, $20) does honor her heritage. But Camba doesn’t call it a Filipino restaurant. “I call it American,” she said. “My family ate a lot of Filipino food, but we went to Argyle [a Vietnamese area in Chicago] almost every weekend. I also ate a lot of Thai. It’s my version of American food.”

Make way for mash-ups
Perhaps American food by way of Asia is an apt description, since Laughing Bird’s menu really is a mash-up of influences. A salad featuring translucent tangles of green papaya ($11), glistening half-moons of bittersweet grapefruit and juicy oranges, flecks of min and crunchy toasted peanuts, all tossed with funky, salty fish sauce is maybe the best som tum (aka Thai papaya salad) I’ve had. And yet, in this dish, there’s even an American farm influence. Camba mixes in burgundy-colored curlicues of raw beet; sweetness is a great foil to the bitterness of the papaya and grapefruit.

Even a dish like the bistek-style beef ($15), which sounds like a traditional Filipino preparation, is actually more of an American/Filipino/Vietnamese hybrid. Bistek is usually thinly sliced tenderloin cured with lemon, onion and soy, but Camba has substituted beef tendon for the tenderloin. Tendon can be chewy, but Camba has cooked it so it’s more like melting, tender bone marrow. She mixes the tendon into a pond of creamy mashed potatoes studded with fresh spring peas (a little hard and undercooked, unfortunately), crispy shallot and garlic. It’s a comforting dish that makes me think of what might result if you took the contents of a chef-created salisbury steak TV dinner and mixed them all together.

Camba’s cooking isn’t entirely Asian. There’s even a bit of European influence, a touch of Spain in her flaky, buttery empanadas ($7) stuffed with funky oyster mushrooms and creamy taleggio. The plate is also a nod to her time as a chef at the cheese-focused Bar Pastoral. “I’m in the top 1 percent of cheese-obsessed people,” she said. “It’s hard to explain how much I love cheese.”

It was actually the most straight-forward Filipino dish I tried, the pancit palabok ($20)—a nest of vermicelli-like round rice noodles swaddling bits of roast pork, shrimp and smoked mackerel, and a soft-boiled egg—that I liked least. The overcooked, wobbly noodles were encrusted in soggy bits of pork skin and the whole thing was bland.

Sweets surrender
While many savory chefs struggle with sweets, Camba, a former “Top Chef” competitor, got her start in pastry. “I didn’t take the MCAT [a medical school admissions test] like all my other friends,” said Camba, who majored in biology at Loyola University. “I got a job at Starbucks, and then I started baking cakes for friends, not regular cakes, but big wedding cakes and cakes that looked like buildings.” At Laughing Bird, a warm rhubarb crisp ($6) dripped with sweet vanilla-flecked whipped cream and the s’mores chocolate cake ($9), though it could have been moister, featured an addictive honey peanut brittle as a garnish.

A different look
The decor at Laughing Bird also sets it apart. While most Filipino joints are usually tiny storefronts filled with steaming buffet tables and utilitarian furniture, Laughing Bird, with its polished gun metal-gray seats, exposed brick, glinting glass orb-shaped chandeliers and chocolate wood tones, looks like a warm and modern European salon. The whole room is softer and more elegant than its predecessor, the modern, sharp-lined restaurant, Tank Sushi, that formerly inhabited this address.

The bottom line
The kitchen staff needs to work on executing more consistently, but by fusing American and Asian flavors and gourmet technique, Camba is serving a very bold and unique vision of Filipino food worth checking out.

Review: Laughing Bird
4514 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-506-2473
Rating: * (out of 4) 

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.