In terms of positive attributes, Sunda is a fairly large, trendy restaurant in a prime location with a wide variety menu items. On the other hand, I’m not impressed by the food I ordered, and the prices certainly reflect its River North location. Whether you want to visit the restaurant will likely depend on whether you’re footing the bill yourself and whether you care about food more than location or decor (if the answer to either is “yes,” I’d skip Sunda).
I started with the signature crispy rice. The beef is a tartare that is seared on top, with a tiny bit of heat from the chili and a dab of an almost chimichurri-like sauce. Unfortunately, I also found a piece of gristle, which is disappointing at these prices, particularly since it isn’t a large quantity of meat. The rice is a little chewy, although it is crisper with the tuna. The tuna is soft but fairly flavorful, and there’s a little bit of heat from the slice of jalapeño. The dish comes four pieces to an order, although the server allowed me to have two of each so that I could try them both, which was nice. Texturally, the dish is a little mushy, particularly the beef. I am especially not impressed with the fact that this is highlighted as one of their signature dishes. The idea is inventive, but the execution is off. I suppose that $16 for the dish evens out to roughly $4 per piece, which is comparable to nigiri prices. However, given that for $4, I could either get a piece of the zuke sake nigri or two pieces of any of the yasai nigiri at Arami – and those are incredible – the signature crispy rice* just doesn’t seem worthwhile.
As a main course, I ordered the pancit caton, which is so salty that it’s difficult to finish the generous portion. According to the menu description, it’s served with a lemon sauce, but it reminds me of chicken bouillon more than citrus. The pork belly is my favorite part of the meal – slightly crispy, melty, porky – but pork belly is a delicious protein to begin with. The noodles themselves are forgettable, but the four shrimp are nicely cooked, plump, and slightly sweet, and the bok choi is crunchy.
Overall, the restaurant feels as though it’s catering more to expense accounts than to people whose primary priority is the food. The decor is interesting; the service is good; the prices are high, given that the food is acceptable. After tax and tip, the two dishes combined were over $40. Yes, it’s River North, but there are places even in River North with comparable prices and better food. For Asian food, Arami (admittedly, in West Town) and SUMI Robata Bar are definitely better, even if they are a slightly different style.
*If you’re interested in an entirely different take on crispy rice, the crispy carnaroli rice cake at Perennial Virant is excellent, and the pressed rice that accompanies the porco balichang tamarindo at Fat Rice is very satisfying.
Sunda – 110 W. Illinois St., Chicago