Co-owner Vicki Kim describes Mott St's design as "utilitarian."
Photo: Martha Williams
If you sit in the back half of Mott St, you’ll be dining next to shelves stocked with Cholula hot sauce, jars of beans, tea…and a box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch. Is that a dessert ingredient?
Nope, it’s breakfast for “the early crew,” our server told us.
With little storage space in the kitchen, Mott St has constructed a pantry within the dining room. The front half of the restaurant features a bar and two- and four-top tables, and there’s a communal table in back. Add in huge windows, materials sourced from Craigslist and pulsing music, and the room has an energy that makes you want to stay all night.
Everyone—the enthusiastic and knowledgeable servers, the kitchen staff, the twenty- and thirtysomething diners, apparently even that early crew—is having a ball at chef Edward Kim’s playful new Asian restaurant, which opened a month ago not far from his much-lauded Ruxbin. But while the vibe may be relaxed, the level of cooking is anything but casual.
The Asian night market–inspired menu feels overwhelming at first. There are about two-dozen dishes, many of which require peppering your server with questions. What’s the forcemeat of the day? On my visit, it was a mild but flavorful Chinese sausage that’s fried like a spring roll. You fold it into a lettuce leaf with sprouts and basil, then dip it in a tangy fish sauce. What’s the collar of the day? Yep, Mott St has a daily fish collar preparation. We had halibut, pan-fried and served on the bone. (While the cut is rich, the vinegary sauce is delicate, so eat this before the other flavorful dishes overwhelm it.) Is there really boba (chewy tapioca pearls) in the tequila cocktail? There is, and they’re flavored with ginger and served with ginger beer and cucumber. Does that say crab brains? Uh-huh. At Mott St, they’re turned into a creamy sauce that’s served with sausage- and coconut-fried rice.
Once you’ve ordered, the stress of dining at Mott St is over and a parade of dishes starts to arrive. Make sure it includes the oyster mushrooms, an umami bomb drenched with miso butter and thyme. The pork butt–stuffed cabbage, made with sticky rice and kimchi broth, gives the Eastern European staple a brilliant Asian twist. The multitextural udon is a tangle of al dente noodles tossed with bonito flakes, kimchi and spicy cod roe that pop when you bite into them. I’m still cursing myself for leaving my leftover udon in the car overnight.
But not every dish at Mott St is a great success. The aforementioned crab-brain sauce is merely swiped on a plate of unremarkable fried rice. While the sesame-poppy-fried-shallot everything wings strike a balance between sweet and spicy, the chicken is dry. The cocktail list includes a bourbon and Malört concoction that overpowers the food, and the boba cocktail is strange—I adore bubble tea, but boba should not be used in a fizzy drink. Stick to the edited wine, beer and sake selections. But by dessert, when I bit into a whimsical mini-banana dipped in chocolate and coated with peanuts, Szechuan peppercorns and salt, I nearly forgot about any quibbles I had with the meal.
Mott St has a chill patio and a sliding window hints at future take-out service. When we asked our server about the restaurant’s “late” closing time listed on its website, she said they’re hoping to extend dinner service past 10pm, in part so chefs can hang out there after work. I can’t blame them—with food this good and an atmosphere this cool, everyone wants to hang out at Mott St. I'd even eat a morning bowl of cereal there.
Mott St (1401 N Ashland Ave, 773-687-9977, mottstreetchicago.com) is open Tuesday–Saturday from 5:30–10pm.