By Brian Hieggelke
I get especially impatient waiting for new restaurants to open in my South Loop neighborhood. When Hackney’s lit up last year after what seemed to be an eternal build-out, I was there on opening night. Given that, you can just imagine my high hopes when I heard that the KDK restaurant development group was teaming with Arun to bring an upscale Chinese outpost to a nearby street. Even better, by opening across from their Gioco, they were signaling plans to do for South Wabash what their pioneering development has done for West Randolph. Opera opened on a Wednesday, but I did not make it there till that Sunday. Fortunately, it lived up to my anticipation, with rich spicy flavors and a level of presentation unimagined in Chinatown. But it was so early in the game that the liquor license had just been granted, meaning beer hadn’t been stocked, and the wait staff didn’t know the wine list yet. So I waited a couple of weeks, and returned for seconds. The food and the space got even more interesting—and busier—the second time around.
Jerry Kleiner (one of the K’s in KDK) may be the best restaurant designer in Chicago. And in a town that boasts the mushroom wonderlands of Jordan Mozer and the eye candy of Suhail, that’s saying a lot. But what sets Kleiner apart from the others is his polymorphism, his ability to design a space that is spectacular yet still comfortably integrated into the cuisine and atmosphere of the restaurant. Visit a Suhail or a Mozer interior, and the design often stands apart, a separate element bearing the visual trademark of its creator. Kleiner’s spaces certainly feature signature touches—there’s usually a nightclub vibe brought home by plush drapes, oversized mirrors and dark rich colors. Compare, for example, the lively circus that is Marché to the more intimate, unquestionably Italian Gioco, with its dark wood interior and wood-burning ovens. Opera does evoke Red Light, as it should, given the Asian basis for both Kleiner venues. But where Red Light feels playful, Opera feels grown up. Set in what was once a storage facility for Chicago’s long-gone motion-picture business (and more recently a Baptist church), one of the space’s spectacular touches is the conversion of the film vaults into dining areas (you can request seating inside, which you might want to do if you have a noise aversion). The main dining area is a large noisy open space, rich in the dark red hues of a mythical Chinatown, with an open kitchen off to one side, a bar on the other, and stairs to nowhere in the middle. Even the walk to the bathroom is a treat, and I’m talking about the checkered colored-glass storage cabinet in the back, not just the soft-core Chinese newsprint that’s been lacquered to one of the walls.
But a great room should not overshadow the food, and here it does not. Working in consultation with the legendary Thai master Arun Sampanthavivat, executive chef Paul Wildermuth has shed the pan-Asian tendencies of his last stop, Red Light, and set out to elevate the art of Chinese cuisine in Chicago. Fittingly, that elevation appeals to both the eyes and the palate. From lobster spring rolls to pork and ginger dumplings, the most conventional appetizers are reborn in rich flavors and richer presentation. The side dishes are consistently the best of their kind, whether it’s the Sichuan dry-cooked green beans—here with ground pork—or the deliciously spicy Chow Fun or Hunan noodles. Main courses imitate a Chinese menu—but with welcome brevity—by offering a variety of beef, pork, seafood and chicken dishes. But there the similarity ends—firecracker chicken, for example, converts a simple dish into a visual spectacle that explodes with flavor.
Opera has the potential to do for Chinese cuisine what Rick Bayless has done for Mexican; that is, take a ubiquitous, Americanized ethnic food and, by focusing on fresh authentic ingredients, take it to a new level. Don’t get me wrong—I love Chinatown, and always will. But the best indication of what Opera has achieved was put to the test on my most recent visit. One member of my group was averse to hot peppers, and the offerings at Opera tend to be much more fiery than typical Chinese takeout. So we ordered the New Canton sweet and sour pork chop. One of my least favorite Chinese offerings, sweet-and-sour dishes too often tend to take an overly breaded meat and add a syrupy sauce so thick and sweet that the “sour” is completely absent. At Opera, a lightly breaded thick pork chop is sliced into a sauce that is light and fruity—and the fruit includes kiwis and star fruits in a tropical mix. I loved it.
And I love what this place is doing for my neighborhood.
Opera, 1301 South Wabash, (312)461-0161, is open Sunday-Wednesday 5:30pm-10pm; and stays open Thursdays till 11pm, Fridays and Saturdays till midnight. Entrees are priced in the high teens-low twenties.