I first heard about the restaurant that would become Rockit Ranch’s white-hot Sunda three years ago when I was interviewing restaurant designer Tony Chi in New York City for a story. The Chicago-based Asian restaurant concept was only in its beginning stages, and was just one of the many projects the internationally renowned designer was juggling at the time. But I had no idea that chef Rodelio Aglibot would be commissioned to introduce us to a whole new set of cravings. With influences from Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese cuisines and more, the New Asian menu goes way beyond sushi and rice bows. Like Chi’s daring design (1,200 bamboo fish above the sushi bar, amazing Asian antiques throughout the space, and banquette-seating cozying up to high top communal tables—it sounds chaotic but it’s strangely comfortable), Aglibot doesn’t present the obvious on the menu with a “No You Didn’t” hand roll and a fried banana dessert deemed “Ridiculous,” but his dishes are more about unexpected flavor than fun names.
At a time when some menus are shrinking or disappearing altogether, they don’t hold back at Sunda, with a menu that folds out like a road map to deliciousness. Open it up and go directly to burnt watermelon and unagi “nigiri.” I am a huge unagi fan and loved how it’s crisped up and placed on top of fresh, cold chile-caramelized watermelon and drizzled with lime and diced mango. With the right amount of spice, sweet, crispiness, fresh watermelon and cool mango, it’s the perfect summery cure for, um, random spring snowstorms.Just as unexpected as an appetizer was Indo Corn Fritters. I’m a sucka for fried apps, and this one’s light and tasty with whole kernels of corn and coriander in a texure conducive to generous dunking in a sweet-onion ginger sauce. It’s great for a fried-fix, but is more mild than the bevy of spicy specialties that await.
Speaking of which, a dining companion suggested starting with fiery wok-fried shishito peppers, but only if we were planning on pairing with heat-battling Asian beer (they have my favorite, Hitachino and other usual suspects). But we opted for specialty drinks like the Toasted Ginger Snap; gin, fresh grapefruit and lime juice, egg white, ginger syrup, mint and anise seeds. A perfect balance is found in the palate-cleansing concoction, but the best part is the rim garnish; orange honey dotted with crushed almonds that’s dessert in itself. The fruity (yet not sickly sweet) Kung Pao Mango also flaunts balance, beauty and a toasted sesame seed and chili powder rim. I’m usually a white wine girl when it comes to Asian food pairing, but with more food-friendly drinks to try like the Lychee Petals and Wasabi H20, I’ll be kicking it Martini-style on future visits.
The “first flavors” go on and on, and another unexpected winner was the Buddha’s-style grilled ahi tuna and pork salad. The presentation isn’t as stunning as everything else on the menu, but we literally couldn’t stop plunging our chopsticks into the simple salad of grilled tuna, slightly sweet pork tossed with chile vinegar and sweet onion with cooling chunks of mango. Again, Aglibot demonstrates that he’s a master of balance and unexpected flavor combinations. Said talent is also revealed in the sliced crab cake-encrusted ahi tuna sashimi; an experiment in brilliance that tastes as good as it sounds and is served beautifully with Japanese hot mustard and a sweet soy glaze.
Let’s talk about soft shell crab for a second and why it’s almost impossible not to order once spotted on a menu. At Sunda, it’s served up in the Devil’s Basket; wok-tossed crispy soft shell crabs, dried chiles (a massive pile of them), shallots, scallops and toasted garlic. A great sharable and almost too-pretty-to-eat dish, the delectable melt-in-your-mouth crab are served in an iron pot.
The sushi bar at Sunda ain’t bustling for no reason, as a fantastic list of classic and creative rolls await. I’ve only scratched the surface of the sushi, nigiri and maki offerings, but the truffled tataki sashimi won out for creativity and flavor with ultra-fresh selections of sliced tuna, salmon, American kobe on a platter with enoki mushrooms, chive soy and a truffle vinaigrette. A killer roll was the Ultimate Handroll of crab, shrimp tempura, and spicy tuna (it’s a mega-sized roll, so ask your server to have it sliced into two).
So, I haven’t even gotten to the Main Flavors portion of the menu yet, which features awesome fish, beef and pork entrées worth sharing. The miso-bronzed baked cod was served with a glazed eggplant that defied my dislike of the vegetable, and I preferred the cod’s delicate flavor to the semi-bland Malay-style Chilean seabass with curried cauliflower. There was nothing bland about the “Shaking Beef,” once dunked into tangy lime-pepper dipping sauce it was dripping with irresistible juiciness. Other tempting dishes to try include duck breast, crispy pata pork shank, and the Kobe beef sirloin, just to name a few. If there’s still room after it all, order up an unexpectedly great side like crispy cauliflower, the ultimate blank-canvas vegetable to soak in garlic, miso and chiles.
With all that spice, texture, sweet and heat still buzzing on your tongue, it’s almost a shame to void it out with dessert, but I did love the cooling avocado mousse with raspberry purée, and housemade Sunda cookies for a light sweet bite. And if you are able to put down your chopsticks and look around at some point, you’ll notice the place can get crowded and sceney on weekends. But it doesn’t matter when the food and service are spot-on, and it’s not the celeb-spotting you’re still marveling at, but the perfect marriage of unagi and watermelon (at least I still am). Sunda, 110 W. Illinois, 312.644.0500