Vettel: S.K.Y. brings a world of inventive flavors to Pilsen

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CHICAGO -- The Pilsen neighborhood is justifiably known for its excellent Mexican cuisine, but S.K.Y., a globally-influenced restaurant, seems to be fitting in well. Chef/owner Stephen Gillanders, who worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, says S.K.Y.’s location was a happy accident.

"You know, I think definitely 'fortunate' is the way to describe how we landed in Pilsen," Gillanders said. "When we were looking for spaces, we had a very specific space that we could afford and there weren't a whole lot of areas in Chicago that were able to provide that. And when we walked into this space, my wife, who designed the restaurant, is like,'this is the one.'"

Gillanders added that the Pilsen community has been "extremely welcoming."

Gillanders' food defies labels. You might start with a quartet of black-truffle croquettes, super-crunchy nuggets filled with aged cheddar and a hint of jalapeno, then dive into a Thai-inspired steak salad, though the presence of arugula and avocado indicates something less than strictly authentic.

“It's a very personal restaurant in general, and we tend to gravitate the concept based around the travels that I've had around the world," he said. "I worked for Jean-Georges for 10 years, and for the last four I was a corporate chef. And we were all over the world, from Tokyo, to Mexico, to France, to French West Indies, you name it. The best experiences that I  had eating, during my travels, I've extracted those experiences and and distilled them into the food we serve here.”

And so the dumpling, filled with Maine lobster, swim in a buttery sauce with green-chile paste, a bit of Chinese dim sum inspiration. Fried chicken with creamed corn sounds as American as apple pie, until you get to that orange fermented hot sauce, with notes of habanero pepper and rice-wine vinegar.

And then we have the foie gras bi bim bop, a Korean tradition with a luxurious twist. The bowl contains mushrooms, charred broccolini, scallions and toasted nori, and instead of a soft-cooked egg, there's seared foie gras on top. The idea is to stir everything together, mashing up the foie as you go.

The sweets are inventive as well. The cheesecake has a bruleed-sugar crust, and is served with mango sorbet and fresh fruit. A dessert called Honey and Rare Tea includes angel-food cake steeped in Earl Grey syrup, along with honey gelato and white chocolate molded to resemble a honeycomb.

The décor has an urban-renewal theme; there are mottled concrete walls, sand-blasted brick walls and exposed mechanicals above. A display kitchen in back lets customers watch the action, and a small lounge in front, adjacent to the bar, is a comfortable place for a drink or two.

I give S.K.Y., 1239 West 18th Street, three stars. Fun fact: Stephen Gillanders originally intended to open this restaurant in Los Angeles, until he and his wife fell in love with Chicago. And that, I think, is turning out to be lucky for us.

1239 W 18th St.
Chicago, IL 60608

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