Chant, the new pan-Asian restaurant on East 53rd, doesn't seem to need anybody's help.
Based on our experience dining there on a recent Saturday evening, the establishment has been well received in Hyde Park. All tables were full, and new customers were arriving regularly.
It's no wonder. The place sparkles on 53rd and enlivens the entire block, making it possible, if you squint your eyes, to pretend you're on a date somewhere on the edges of Park Slope, or perhaps the East Village: it's late, sort of chilly, and you're out on the street; you see the clutch of people near the entrance, the flicker of orange and amber lights from the bar inside through the broad windows; once you're in, you smell not the faintest trace of Pinesol as you might in any of the slop-gallies on 55th Street; and, most noticeably, you are greeted by courteous and very charming staff.
Chant, we'd have to say, is off to a raging start as a great neighborhood restaurant. In terms of vibe, decor, and food, they've raised the bar in Hyde Park.
But we also think they could raise it a bit more, and we hope they do.
Pan-Asian is tricky to pull off, and the standard risk is that by trying to be everything, you wind up being less than anything. There's also the tendency to cater to certain preconceptions about what a middle-American market will tolerate as "Asian" food.
Which is why we were prepared to walk if there was any sign of Crab Rangoon on the menu -- an appetizer which typically has very little to do with crab, and even less to do with Rangoon (though quite a bit with cream cheese).
A nervous scan of the appetizers let us get past our own deal-breaker, but only on a technicality: the all-American Crab had been thoughtfully upgraded to Lobster Rangoon. Thankfully, we could continue.
Chant advertizes itself as a tapas place, so it's perhaps appropriate that the kitchen shines brightest with the small dishes. We tried the crispy mussel bites and Szechwan short ribs. The latter are a take on a classic dish found in several regions of China, notable versions of which are served up at a few other locales on the South Side. While good, the didn't come across as particularly Asian apart from the sauce, especially in a town full of ribs. But for that reason alone, they are bound to appeal.
The mussels were a clever assemblage of fried egg, scallions, a crispy mussel topped with sriracha sauce, enough sweetness and crunch to make the mussel-averse forget about sand, seashores, and red tide.
I had the Lemongrass Roasted Chicken, and my companion the Clay Pot Tofu. I definitely placed the better order and was generally happy with it. The chicken was beautifully roasted to a golden crisp while retaining its tenderness. Accompanied by several slices of eggplant in a delicious sauce that carried the aroma of tea-smoked fowl, on the whole I thought it should have been accompanied by a broader range of flavors and textures to avoid the impression of "meat-on-a-plate."
My companion was disappointed with the vegan option of Clay Pot Tofu. Especially in an Asian restaurant, this kind of dish should be bursting in flavor to counteract the potential wateriness of the glass noodles and tofu combo. This dish needed a lot more garlic, ginger, basil, and thoughtfulness before it should be sold for $9.
The shiraz was a happy and workable accompaniment to the relative spiciness of the appetizers, and held up well through the more savory flavors in the entrees. My companion was very happy with the mohito.
Dining at Chant was, overall, a very pleasant experience. The service was fast, attentive, and fantastic (let's hope it lasts!) the ambiance a very welcome departure from the utilitarian neighborhood standard. The tapas-like appetizers especially, the range of which we only sampled, were peppy and enjoyable.
The entrees, in our opinion, need some refinement, especially for the price. The Chinese bun added little to the Lemongrass Roasted Chicken, which was somewhat overwhelmed in a tasty but monochromatic bath, with little to give it contrast. The Clay Pot Tofu was bland, and fell far short of tofu-based vegetarian dishes that can be ordered on Cermak and Wentworth.
Chant has definitely raised the bar. We just encourage them to keep doing so.
Menu for 2
Szechwan Braised Short Ribs with Spicy Sesame Mango Dipping Sauce
Lemongrass Roasted Chicken with Enoki Mushroom Gravy and Chinese Eggplant served with Rice and Chinese Bun
Clay Pot Tofu (Vegan)
2006 Bong Bong Shiraz
Tab (Tip not included)
Chant, 1509 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, Illinois. Hours may vary.