S.K.Y. is the Limit

Michael Nagrant / 04.05.18

A vision of bro-bar bottle service is not the reverie chef Stephen Gillanders is trying to invoke with the name of his new Pilsen restaurant, S.K.Y.. Rather, the name is a sweet commemoration of his wife, Seon Kyung Yuk’s initials. But, it is hard for me not to hear S.K.Y. and think of the cerulean-colored Skyy vodka bottle, a 1990s-era talisman for things like blue-shirted consultants booty shaking to the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s #1 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”.

It is a vision that some Pilsen residents, and also the Los Angeles based anti-gentrification group Defend Boyle Heights (DBH), might share. In October 2017, activists from a group called ChiResists and DBH fogged up a window of S.K.Y. restaurant and wrote “FU” in the condensate. They parried with GM Charles Ford on the sidewalk telling the restaurant group to “Get the fuck out.”  Which is to say, members of an L.A.-based community group asked an American chef with Filipino roots to vacate a place, named by its early Czech-immigrant inhabitants, because they felt ownership over this part of Chicago.

The launch of S.K.Y. has opened up fresh wounds in a neighborhood which, since the 1850s, has served as a port of entry for Germans, Poles, Czechs, Italians, and now the Latino community. Anti-gentrification activists contend that through gentrification, wealthy white people displace poor and/or immigrant communities of color and in the process benefit economically through real estate transactions and development. There are also studies cited by motley fool million acres that suggest that long-time residents aren’t displaced significantly and they often benefit from the process of gentrification, which is to say the whole thing is complicated.

What’s not complicated is that because Richard Daley spent like a coked-out hedge fund manager in the 80s and 90s and passed that bill on to our grandchildren, the city of broad shoulders is now the city of slumped shoulders. We escaped a sugar tax, but a big property tax increase is very much in action. Studies suggest that the Cook County Assessor’s office led by the recently defeated Joseph Berrios had also been offloading the local property tax burden from high-dollar properties to modestly-priced ones. Sometimes it feels like Chicago is a year away from alderman forcing you to buy a pedestrian sticker so you can just walk on the sidewalk. Chicago has a long history as a tale of two cities: north vs south side, rich vs poor, and the city that works for some, and the city that fails so many others. Cabrini Green’s former land is now inhabited by a Target while many southsiders live simultaneously in murder oases and food/education deserts.

I’m very sympathetic to Pilsen’s long-dwelling citizens, especially those who may not be able to afford the rent hikes or property tax increases which may come as a result of the rise in property prices that economic investment in the community might create. I live here precisely because I want to experience, contribute, and participate in a land of diversity, a place of many colors, creeds, and cultures. If those members of our community, the ones who create the great taquerias, pozolerias, and birrierias, the same folks that share the glory of a Dia de Los Muertos celebration or the epic struggle of Jesus through a Good Friday procession are driven from our city, we might as well move with them, or, give up and eat Lou Malnati’s in Naperville.

As much as I want to accommodate this struggle for inclusiveness, I don’t want to live in a city where the children of immigrants and immigrants themselves can’t improve themselves and their communities. Though I don’t always love his bulldog approach or his old school political bullying, I do admire that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking responsibility for Daley’s sins. He’s using the tax increase dollars to subsidize a holistic approach to community building -making broad investments in grocery stores, community centers, and schools-in underserved neighborhoods like Woodlawn to make sure we retain and further everyone who chooses to live in Chicago. While Rahm’s efforts aren’t perfect, (some school closings have created less choice for locals) providing affordable housing options while providing a supportive infrastructure is moving in the right direction. No one, poor or rich, wants to live in a city where blight and decay and reluctance for progress are the alternative solution.

Which is to say I firmly believe we need restaurants like S.K.Y..

S.K.Y. is not a panacea, but it provides jobs to the community, tax dollars to provide that supportive and inclusive infrastructure, and is a focal point for hope and progress. The building that houses S.K.Y. was once condemned and crumbling, and is now reborn.

Yes, S.K.Y. serves black truffle croquettes and foie gras bibimbap, but it does so at prices which remind me more of the 1990s than 2018. Nothing on the menu is over $30. I recognize that for people struggling to eat three meals a day, this is cold comfort. But, I believe Gillanders is trying hard to make his restaurant relatively affordable. He could probably charge 30% more for many of the dishes on his menu.

The high ceiling dining room, a combination of industrial touches like exposed cement and brick that channels a West Loop loft, is a true gathering place. The only other restaurant I’ve dined in with such diversity, a mix of old and young, black, white, Latino, gay and straight, in the last five years, is the nearby Del Toro run by the Garcia brothers on Halsted.

Speaking of croquettes, they are basically fried savory donuts bursting with truffle funk whose richness is mitigated by a bright well-dressed bunch of curly frisée.

One of Gillanders’ skills is that he drops more acid (in his cuisine) than a Deadhead which prevents his dishes from killing you with richness. Thai steak salad, a mix of bitter greens, succulent beef, and fried shallot glistens with tangy nam pla vinaigrette. My only issue is that the salad also featured tomatoes, which were sort of unneeded. They were ripe and flavorful, but not quite the late summer sun-drenched burst one desires, which is to say if it’s February, maybe skip the tomatoes until they’re really peak.  Also, my Thai language skills not being up to snuff, I forgot that nam pla was fish sauce. When I asked the server to describe the dish, she said it had a nam pla vinaigrette. I had to ask her to clarify what nam pla was, something I’m guessing many others will ask.

Gillanders’ other skill is transforming classic Asian dishes with luxury. Lobster dumplings in jade butter feature silky wrappers stuffed with fat whole pieces of claw and tail meat. When I had this dish at Intro Dim Sum, a temporary Lettuce Entertain You restaurant that Gillanders created, I liked it, but felt something was missing. What I realized is that the Intro version had more of a chopped-up second-rate texture. I don’t know for sure whether that was as a result of a business decision, but when you’re part of a corporate restaurant group with many hands in the pie, a chef’s vision can be diluted in many ways. At S.K.Y. where Gillanders is the final arbiter, he can execute his vision exactly how he wants without interference and that shows in comparable presentations.

Luxury rears its head again in foie gras bibimbap, a preparation which substitutes basic bulgogi for a fat lobe of killer duck liver. It’s not the foie that makes the dish, but the simple technique of serving the dish in a searing hot pot that produces crispy rice bits at the bottom. So many of the mom and pop Korean spots around town do not do this and thus you often get a universal mush rather than the contrasting crunch at S.K.Y..

All the fowl at S.K.Y. is more than fair. Duck confit features a textbook mahogany cracklin’ skin, luscious interior meat, and a side dip of rusty orange habanero sauce.

Asian restaurants and Asian chefs produce great desserts. The egg custard buns at Triple Crown Seafood are one of my favorite things. Many of the best pastry chefs in the world are Vietnamese or Chinese. Peter Yuen’s intricate creations served at La Patisserie P on Argyle street are fabulous. I loved when Thai Dang served a simple fruit bowl brimming with lychee and rambutan at Embeya. I also appreciate, though have never craved deeply, the contrasting textures and myriad flavors of a great Halo-halo, a mix of shaved ice, sweet potato, kidney beans, gummies, and various tapiocas.

But, the Asian restaurant dessert landscape is also littered with a lot of stale fortune cookies (they were invented in California, so blame America) and orange slices. So, I love that Gillanders and his team are applying the same care to their sweets as their savory offering. I especially liked a sliver of cheese cake featuring a bruleed sugar crown, blueberry compote, and citrus sorbet.

Maybe the best thing about S.K.Y. is that when you leave and walk down 18th street toward the back of the restaurant, there’s a huge window that affords a view of the kitchen team hard at work inside. There’s something about watching the steam rise, the grill smoke curl, and the general bustle of the brightly-lit staff contrasted against the hush of the darkened sidewalk. I am also grateful that in this transport that I am no longer thinking of cheap vodka and dirty clubs. For the community, this window feels like a portal to something else, a glimpse in to a multicultural kitchen team busting their butts together to make something amazing. It is a view for anyone of any economic or cultural station to see and be inspired by culinary magic and the success of a son and daughter of Filipino and Korean immigrants. Seeing this may inspire an aim for something similar, or maybe something greater.

S.K.Y is located 1239 W. 18th St., 312.846.1077