Review - 609
East and West make a love connection in the Loop
By Dave Lowry
Photographs by Katherine Bish
Around our house, the F-word is “fusion,” as in “fusion cuisine,” and its utterance is ill advised because it makes us very, very cranky. (OK, crankier.) That’s because “fusion” is most often applied in the restaurant trade as shorthand for “Our chef hopes foie gras–stuffed egg rolls are an inspired contribution to edible diversity.” Blending cultures is tricky and fraught with potential disaster—especially with cuisines as disparate as those of the East and West, because so few chefs are masters of either domain. Anchoring the eastern edge of the self-consciously hip Loop, 609 has accepted the challenge, however—and it acquitsitself well.
A Thai salad, crispy with julienned vegetables and piquant with lime and ginger, arrived creatively in several Chinese shao-tzu spoons and provided sustenance while we perused the menu. Appetizers of dark-brown spring rolls loaded with juicy shreds of duck, shiitake, crunchy taro and cabbage were northeastern Thai style, the “skin” fried until it flaked delicately, and the results were indeed appetizing. Unpleasantly gooey, fraudulent, difficult-to-digest crab Rangoon is the reality TV of the food world. At 609, it is at least interesting, the cream-cheese filling heavy with hunks of crab and lobster and squirted into long deep-fried tubes that are easier to eat. “Potstickers” here taste more like steamed jiao-tsu, dumplings stuffed plump with smoked chicken and arranged to be dipped into a smoky-sweet barbecue sauce. A spinach salad was beautifully presented: a platter-size portion of greens topped with sprinkles of goat cheese, sliced strawberries and spiced walnuts. The lemony vinaigrette was fine, but this salad was so well constructed, it needed no dressing. Equally worthy was an arrangement of cherry tomatoes with hunks of mozzarella and avocado slices enlivened with holy basil and a subtle balsamic vinegar glaze.
Scallops are a signature dish at 609, and ours were an unqualified success. Doorknob-size, they hit the sauté pan just long enough to get a caramelized crust on the surface. The insides were meaty, juicy and perfectly tender, while the asparagus- and pea-studded mushroom risotto on which they perched was worthy all by itself ($21). In fact, risotto gets the spotlight in another must-try dish, the rice cooked just to the point between creamy and al dente, swirled with asparagus, soybeans and slivers of shiitake and pungent with a luxurious addition of white-truffle oil. The noodles that accompany the yellowfin tuna are house-made of buckwheat and suffused with cream of spinach as advertised. But they are not, as advertised, soba—wrong texture. Nice texture, very good—just not soba. They go very well with a trio of tuna fillets, flash-sautéed so the interior has that deep-ruby meatiness that marks higher-end cuts of the fish. The sesame sauce on top was restrained. Simple and wonderfully presented, this may have been the best dish we tasted at 609.
A breast and wing of chicken were roasted perhaps just a trifle too long, but otherwise succeeded in every way, the skin toasted and fragrant. A mildly spicy tomato aioli worked very well as a dip. A fine accompaniment of broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and carrots was roasted nicely and made an attractive platform for the chicken. A crusty pressed cube of potatoes and sweet potatoes, roasted, then sautéed and layered pavé-style, did the same for a strip steak drizzled with a rich demiglace that accentuated the beefy taste of the meat. Carnivores will also be tempted by a pork chop grilled and splashed with a thick reduction sauce of raspberries and Cabernet and served with a dollop of mashed potatoes pebbled with tender soybeans.
Strongly recommended on a first visit here is the three-course prix fixe, which offers a sampling of the restaurant’s best. It also means that because dessert is one of the courses, you just have to eat one. You won’t regret the indulgence. Sorbets at 609 explode across the palate with the flavors of strawberry, mango and other fruits. A chocolate soufflé cake was dense and moist and runny with frighteningly rich chocolate sauce, and the ball of banana ice cream on the side was so happily intense and creamy that it almost—almost—detracted from the chocolate.
Other restaurants sharing 609’s efforts, menu approach and price range would do well to study the wine list here. It is a paragon of solid, wide-ranging, dependable vintages, at least a couple of which can pair with at least one item on the menu—and the prices are exactly in line with the cost of meals. It would be difficult to find a better match for those luscious scallops than the chilly ’03 Willamette Valley Riesling for $25. The steak pairs well with the peppery, plummy Shiraz from Wynns Coonawarra Estate from 2003, arguably the best growing season in recent Australian history. It’s a splendid buy at $33.
The interior here makes the best of an unappealing architecture, though the place could never be described as cozy. A concrete floor and lots of stainless steel in the chairs and tables give 609 an industrial atmosphere that’s in keeping with a neighborhood that often tries, like a Goth kid in Fenton, too hard for urban gritty. Speckled orange walls would have been groovadelic three decades ago. A clunky metal door looks like the entrance to a spookhouse laboratory; it leads to a bar next door, a nice idea that effectively separates the space from the dining area. Service is polite, organized and professional.
We’re more enthusiastic, after our visit to 609, about the possibilities of blending Orient and Occident in the kitchen—or to be more honest, we left with our appetite satisfied, and so we are, at least, a little less cranky about the whole subject.
Address: 609 Eastgate
Average Main Course: $16
Reservations: Wouldn't be a waste of time
Bottom Line: A thoughtful and mostly rewarding approach to food that combines elements of East and West in a popular location with lots of shopping and people-watching opportunities available before or after a meal