While the culinary voice of Korean chef-owner Dave Park shines at Jeong in West Town, it’s the familial influences that tie it all together.
My favorite dish at Jeong happened to be the one I was most hesitant to order. I wasn’t familiar with tteokbokki, and my quick pre-meal sweep of social media had uncovered shots of what appeared to be an unglamorous cluster of pale tubes covered in a sienna-tinted chile sauce. But the stir-fried rice cakes ($14) came highly recommended by our affable server, and even now, I’m craving the chewy, spicy, tangy dish. Chef-owner Dave Park toasts the tubular rice cakes in schmaltz, which lends a light sweetness to the dish. It’s a great representation of what he calls his “approachable style of Korean food,” uprooted from its humble suburban food-court beginnings as Hanbun for a fresh start at Jeong—both the maiden name of Park’s grandmother and a Korean word describing a bonding, soulful love. “It was a dish inspired by my childhood,” Park explains. “I grew up eating tteokbokki all the time while I walked home from school.”
Since Jeong’s hungrily anticipated debut, it has become one of the hardest reservations to secure in Chicago—fans of Hanbun have been flocking to its successor, Park says. Park (The Aviary, Takashi) and Jennifer Tran, his wife and business partner, smartly refurbished the former Green Zebra into a neat 40-seat space that a recent dining companion noted as having “a lovely ambiance.” It’s unpretentious yet sophisticated—a fitting match for Park’s food. “I wanted to keep the same intimacy we had at Hanbun, but in a more modern, luxurious setting,” he says. While the seven-course tasting menu ($87) provides a great introduction to Park’s stylish fare, the a la carte menu is just as fun to explore.
Our night got off to a great start with curls of mackerel sashimi ($16), cured in a citrus-genmaicha brine (the latter is a mixture of green tea and popped brown rice) and placed around a pool of sesame-gochujang dressing. The broccoli ($13) is tastefully tossed in creamy, smoked mayo brightened by bites of apple and rounded out with chile oil and roasted cashews. Other small plates didn’t quite sing like their counterparts. Pork-and-kimchi dumplings and beef tartare were “perfectly fine but not distinctive enough,” one friend noted. “It’s a quiet dish,” another remarked of the tartare—although to be fair, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The concise list of five cocktails ($15 each) should not be overlooked. The Gochujang is a summery blend of the mandarin-kumquat hybrid calamansi, Junipero gin and St. George raspberry liqueur, while the Roasted Barley is a malty, bittersweet mix of rum, grapefruit and Luxardo Amaro Abano.
Progressing down the menu, find braised short rib ($32) touting a nice crusty exterior and smart pairings of a light brown-butter carrot veloute and an airy rice puff. Duck confit ($30) is drier than you’d expect, but in a way that lends choice texture to the meat and contrasts nicely with the rich gochujang-duck jus and kabocha squash. Mushroom and barley juk ($26), a Korean porridge, has an earthy roundness gleaned from the barley’s immersion in a dashi broth made with Parmesan and a fermented soybean paste known as doenjang.
All three desserts ($11 each) are winners as well. Sujeongghwa is a gummy tapioca pudding studded with persimmon and edible petals, evoking a light sweetness reminiscent of a Jolly Rancher. But it was the rice pudding, topped with shingles of omija berry meringue and rice wine sherbet, that impressed us most, thanks to its rainbow of flavors that seemed to evolve with each bite.
Park credits his grandmother for sparking his love of food, but it’s Tran to whom he attributes the success of Jeong. “She functions in the background, making sure everyone has what they need,” he says. “Without Jennifer, this place would not be alive.” And with such a seamless blend of food and atmosphere, Jeong proves a family affair worth savoring.
1460 W. Chicago Ave.
Small plates, $12-$18; large plates, $26-$32; cocktails, $15
Open Tue.-Sat., 5-10pm
Photography by: Anthony Tahlier