Three young restaurateurs build the dream.
Like a real-life incarnation of Ellen Page’s character in Inception, Davide Nanni (of the design firm Alter Ego Form) seems to slowly and steadily be building fantastical architectural worlds in Chicago. As a side project to his Alter Ego work (on display at Simone’s and the Boiler Room), Nanni has brought this compact, crowded, no-reservations Noble Square restaurant—and the diners who fill it—into his shared dream-space.
Ruxbin’s design mantra is “refurbished, re-purposed, and reclaimed,” and sure enough each design element at Ruxbin can be broken down into its sources: A bench is part movie-theater seat, part seatbelt; a booth is part church pew, part leather jacket. That orange wall giving the room its warm glow: apple-juice shipping crates. Upstairs you’ll find the city’s most surreal bathroom: I’d describe it, but that would kill some of the fun. Plus it’s not necessary to dissect Ruxbin into its raw materials to appreciate it. The overall effect emanates youthful energy and serious creativity.
That energy spreads quickly to the crowds filling the booths and spilling over to the lofted waiting area, and the noise level seems consummate with the number of bottles of wine and beer consumed: Ruxbin’s menu is reasonably priced, and made even more affordable by the fact that it’s BYOB. I’m especially fond of the servers and hosts here, who seem to balance the room’s craziness with a sweet, calm professionalism.
In an environment this inviting, chef Edward Kim’s dishes are easy to like. With the exception of the “K-town empanadas”—thick dough filled with Oaxacan cheese, not sufficiently delivering on the promised kimchee—the food doesn’t scream “fusion.” Instead, Kim (who owns the restaurant with his sister Vicki and their friend Jenny Kim), levels subtle tweaks on familiar bistro food: Classic little mussels steamed in a garlic-white wine sauce are topped with a heap of french fries tossed with togarashi, a Japanese spice blend that gets its reddish color from chile peppers. The more conventional hanger steak comes out perfectly medium-rare, well-seasoned and astonishingly tender, and the cauliflower purée that accompanies it is impossible to stop eating. The crisp skin on the pan-seared trout is candy; I love the sweet dates and black sesame seeds studding the bulgur wheat beneath it. There are only five main courses. I’ve eaten them all, and when I return, it will be for the tofu: marinated in miso, fried in a panko breading, served with quinoa dyed scarlet with red beets.
Kim seems to take more risks with appetizers, and the results are less consistent. Elotes are as simple and satisfying as on a street-corner. Toasts smeared with avocado purée taste primarily of anchovy filets: Anchovy-lovers will flip; I was ambivalent. The eggplant salad—fried eggplant and tender beets in a yogurt dressing—is brilliant; the block of corn bread beneath the jicama-grapefruit salad is beguiling. There are only two desserts on the menu, both charmingly petite: lychee panna cotta topped with crunchy, toasted coconut flakes and a relatively banal flourless chocolate cake. Their objective: to sate the need for one sweet, cool bite that, with some apprehension, brings to a close the warm freneticism of the night.