A few years back, the guy who wrote the culinary column for my mushroom magazine went to the wilds of British Columbia in search of the morel bonanza that had reportedly been sparked by some recent forest fires. When they wandered, weary and dirty, into the local truck stop restaurant at the end of the day, their server announced that -- newly energized by the influx of morel money -- the restaurant was now serving wine. When asked what kind of wine the restaurant was serving, they were told that the wine was "medium". They inquired about the usage of this term. There were told, "You know, not dry, not sweet -- medium!"
I never thought this would be anything but a funny story to me, but dang if I didn't have a wine at Red Violet last night that was medium. The school, CalArts, where I got my masters degree held its first-ever Chicago alumni event at Red Violet. We were offered a red or a "Riesling" white, which I was expecting to be at least somewhat sweet (though I guess they aren't always), especially after some young pickles and Peking pancakes. No dice. So then, reacting to the shock of no sweetness, I was waiting for dryness to hit my mouth, but that didn't happen either. I waited and waited! Suddenly, "Oh, my God," I thought, "this wine is a Medium!"
The whole meal was that way. They started us out with some quick-make pickles (cucumber slices). They were kinda nice, but I've made better in my refrigerator overnight. These came with limp, bright-red peppery-looking things interspersed, but there was no heat at all. Then came those doughy scallion pancakes, which were pretty good, but no more so than just about any place in Chinatown. It's not good when such a dish is the best one of the meal. The next appetizer was steamed BBQ pork buns, which were fluffy and had no paper on the bottom; but the filling -- while not awful -- was certainly not the least bit exciting.
This pattern held for the rest of the meal. I have to hand it to the restaurant: they're consistent. If their goal is to serve stunningly inoffensive food to slightly drunk yuppies (and hey, what else is River North for?), then this menu is impeccably designed and executed. The salt-and-pepper squid was slightly too salty for my taste (so it's probably pretty perfect for most Americans), nicely crispy, and otherwise devoid of features. If I hadn't seen the tentacle shapes, I would have had absolutely no idea what was inside, or even if there WAS anything inside. It was sort of like eating thick but thoroughly crispy potato chips as a main course.
The one slightly interesting dish had beef, asparagus, pistachio nuts and onions stir-fried in a standard brown sauce. I'd been on the lookout for exotic ingredients, since their menu on the website emphasizes those; but the pistachios were the closest we got. Each of the ingredients were nicely cooked and tasted fine on their own; there just wasn't any particular point to eating them together.
We also had some sort of dish with batter-fried chicken nuggets and an assortment of vegetables. From looking through their menu by the door, this may have been RV's incarnation of General Tsao's chicken. Before starting this review, I looked through the Yelp site to see if my experience was terribly strange, and one woman wrote "This isn't Chinese food. This isn't Chinese-American food. This is what I would do if I was throwing together random ingredients that happened to be in my kitchen." That pretty much nails the chicken dish for me.
My thought during the evening was that maybe we were being whited -- after all, this is an alumni meeting for a California school -- but I quickly progressed to thinking that a Chinese restaurant on West Hubbard probably has whiting people as its core mission. And yeah, quite a few of the Yelp people seem to have had the same experience.
Anyway, when I was looking the restaurant up before the event, I saw that it is fairly new, so I went in thinking about posting about it; and I searched the forum and didn't see anything, so I thought maybe I'd save someone a disappointing visit. And I got to use the term "Medium" in a serious way. A new life goal achieved -- and one that I never even entertained until last night! It might just not have been a Riesling, though; it tasted more like a Chardonnay to me, if there's such a thing as a Chardonnay with no fruit...
121 W Hubbard St
Chicago, IL 60654