Former Top Chef contestant Chrissy Camba has taken over the Lincoln Square space occupied for several years by Tank Sushi and transformed it into an upscale Filipino restaurant. It's refreshing to have a relatively unexplored cuisine getting some exposure in Chicago, especially at the hands of a high-profile chef.
My experience with Filipino food has been limited, mostly to dishes prepared in small batches in the kitchens of Filipino mothers, so I didn't have a great idea of what to expect at Laughing Bird. I found many of the flavors familiar, as Filipino cuisine incorporates flavors from China, Spain and the United States, and the tastes and textures that were new to me whet my appetite for more.
People who frequented Tank Sushi will find the decor hasn't changed dramatically. It remains unremarkable, but is sleek, dark and modern enough so as not to detract from the dining experience. For the next few months, I'd recommend enjoying an al fresco meal on the sidewalk patio. You'd be remiss to pass up the cocktails and go straight to wine. The $11 boozy concoctions are cleverly conceived and expertly mixed. My favorite was the rhubarb Rickey, an effervescent combination of gin and club soda with bright notes of rhubarb and lime. Rather than compete with one another, the flavors combine effortlessly creating a cocktail that tastes almost as if it was simply poured from a can ( except, of course, for its notable freshness ).
Instead of bread, the meal at Laughing Bird begins with shrimp chips, crunchy crackers with the consistency of Funyuns ( but with a far less offensive flavor ). Other pre-meal nibbles available to order range from traditional Filipino finger foods like lumpia ( fried spring rolls ) to items with more of a global influence like oyster mushroom and Taleggio empanadas.
Of the more substantial small plates, I highly recommend the burrata. The delicate, oozing cheese is served with lightly charred spring onions and an unusual "cocojam" that tastes like a not-too-sweet caramel pudding. It comes with hunks of fresh pandesal, a dense and sweet Filipino bread sprinkled with sizable crystals of sea salt. When eaten all together, the cheese, jam, bread and onions form a complex sweet/salty bite that is surprisingly delicious. Also worth trying is the crispy pork belly. The log of succulent meat is fried on the top forming an outer layer that is almost like a ( very fatty and flavorful ) crust. Ever so slightly grilled watercress provides a bright and fresh contrast to the rich pork.
The entree offerings feel thoughtful and editeda highlight reel of Filipino cuisine rather than a smorgasbord. The menu is peppered with a few clever deviations from tradition and a judicious infusion of seasonal spring ingredients. The Adobo chicken is billed on the menu as "the national dish of the Philippines," and it only takes one impossibly juicy bite to comprehend its popularity. The chicken was some of the most tender I've ever been served, and it's marinated in a straightforward mix of vinegar, soy and garlic that complements the meat, but doesn't overwhelm it. The chicken is served with plain jasmine rice and pickled green papaya. It's a meal that manages to be simple but not blandthe epitome of comfort food.
The pancit palabok is another dish that could easily make regulars out of first-time visitors to Laughing Bird. Made with thin fried rice noodles, it might be considered the Filipino equivalent of pad thai. These noodles are cooked in a salty pork and shrimp sauce that lends ample flavor. It's topped with mounds of tender pork, shrimp and smoked mackerel and sprinkled with crispy pork rinds that add a welcome crunch.
One of the desserts, an irresistible rhubarb cobbler, is one of Camba's notable breaks with Filipino tradition. Instead, she honors the flavors of late springand with great success. The tart fruit is cooked properly until just barely tender and covered in sweet crumbles. A generous dollop of thick and noticeably fresh whipped cream unites the sour and sweet flavors in bite after glorious bite.
Laughing Bird is at 4514 N. Lincoln Ave.; call 773-506-2473 or visit www.laughingbirdchicago.com .
Do you need some more Sugar & Spice in your life? Follow me on Twitter @SugarAndSpiceMS for inside scoop and commentary on Chicago's dining scene.