It was a Saturday night in Chicago, around 8:45 P.M., and my mom and I were sitting in the car eagerly anticipating our first dinner together in over three months. I had landed at O’Hare just over two hours earlier, and in true James Malnati fashion, had a dinner reservation lined up before I would even make it home. Even after having what seemed like the last piece of luggage to land on the carousel and driving all the way to Pilsen, we still arrived at S.K.Y. (pronounced as a series of three letters and not the full word according to our waiter) almost an hour before our reservation. This gave us time to talk about the slight uneasiness I felt about eating there, even with its rave reviews. Though I was excited for the meal, in my mind S.K.Y. remained tethered to the controversy regarding Pilsen’s gentrification, with its prices seeming unattainable for many of the neighborhood’s residents. Also, I was unsure if the restaurant would make an effort to hire members of the community or instead act as a catalyst for the erasure of the neighborhood’s cultural identity.
The fact that this review has been written is indicative that I was pleasantly surprised by how well the restaurant seems to be fitting in. I didn’t tell my mom this, but if I felt uncomfortable with the homogeneity of either the staff or customers, I was ready to order one dish to be polite and have a second dinner somewhere else. Thankfully, the restaurant seems to have taken the anti-gentrification backlash it received to heart and has hired people who probably live within walking distance or a short Pink Line ride away across the board. Furthermore, while the restaurant obviously has attracted people from farther north, the spectrum of diners would never make West Loop or Lakeview your first guess. It was undeniably Pilsen. In terms of the prices, while they seemed high at first, I underestimated how substantial the dishes would be. While I would still call this a restaurant mainly for special occasions, for around the same price as we spent at Giant in August, where we tried five dishes, we split eight similarly sized dishes at S.K.Y.
One of the restaurant’s strongest features is its design. It is without a doubt in the top three most aesthetically pleasing restaurants that I have been to in Chicago. The combination of its exposed brick and roughly painted walls gives the dining room a warehouse meets art studio feel. The color scheme, mostly reliant on grays and dulled rust, makes the whole restaurant seem undeniably modern. The chairs look like velvet.
Head chef Stephen Gillanders is Filipino, so many dishes have Asian influences, but the menu could never be perfectly described as Asian fusion, which is a term Gillanders seems to think is pointless. Some dishes steer clear of Asian influences entirely, so Modern American might be a better description, but I find that vague. We will call it M.A.D. (Modern Asian/American Dining pronounced as a series of three letters, not the whole word.) The menu is split up into snacks and appetizers to share as well as main dishes, but my mom and I ignored this and opted to split everything, which is what other parties seemed to be doing as well. Our server, I think using the word avant-garde, said he would devise a play on a tasting menu based on all the dishes we ordered and for the most part did a great job.
The first dish that came out was a Thai soup that consisted of mainly chicken and shiitake mushrooms in a spicy, warm coconut broth. It wasn’t bad but far from my favorite dish of the evening, as I thought the chicken needed more flavor. Plus, I think I’ve had a probably lower quality but similar tasting version of this soup at quite a few mom and pop Asian restaurants for a lot cheaper.
The gap between the first two dishes marked the only time that I felt worried that I would actually be disappointed by the meal, but after the roasted pork belly came out as our second dish, my fears were alleviated for the rest of the night. It was cooked perfectly, tasted great, and mingled well with the acidic cabbage underneath. The dish felt like a similar formula to what makes Korean BBQ tacos so addicting, except higher quality and, quite frankly, just better.
Our third course was a new addition to the menu, the steak salad. While we were eating it I described it to my mom as a delicious antithesis to those stupid, veering on racist Emperor’s Chicken Salad you see at California Pizza Kitchen or something like that. It had steak, a variety of tomatoes, crispy onions, and puffed rice on a bed of arugula. It came with a very strong citrus dressing, and, even after not all of it made it onto our plates when we divvyed up the salad, it still felt a bit overdressed. However, the combination of ingredients was very well thought out, the steak was awesome, and, even in a spread of very fairly priced dishes, the generous portion of steak made it the best deal of the night.
Next, we had the dish that has probably received the most buzz since the restaurant opened, which is the lobster dumplings. When my mom and I were choosing dishes, this was the first selection we made. Stuffed with sizable portions of lobster—no filler, whatsoever—and accompanied with a butter sauce and topped with herbs, they were absolutely exquisite. S.K.Y. succeeds as a restaurant because it knows which ingredients to emphasize.
I thought the cornbread madeleines would be one of our first dishes, but our waiter placed them in the second half of our meal with the intention of dipping them in the leftover butter sauce from the dumplings. I did not like that combination at all, but I thought pairing them with the olive oil butter that they came with was absolutely perfect. They were so soft and moist that they fell apart quite easily but into large enough pieces that kept them from being annoying to eat. We actually waited quite a bit for them, which was the smallest deal to my mom and I because we were gleefully catching up and I had three months of study abroad stories to share, and our waiter earnestly informed us that there had been a kitchen accident and our madeleines were on the ground. I mean this seriously—thank you for the honesty S.K.Y. And thank you for taking them off our bill, even though we didn’t mind whatsoever. They were so addictive we could’ve waited twice as long and they still would’ve been worth it.
Our penultimate course was the only dish we ordered from the main section: the salmon with cauliflower prepared two ways. This was the dish of the night. The fish was cooked perfectly and melted in your mouth, and its miso-mushroom crust provided the perfect amount of salt and great texture. The cauliflower puree was smooth—I seriously would put it on sandwiches instead of mayo—and its garlicky notes complemented the caramelized cauliflower so well. Regardless of how you choose to approach S.K.Y.’s menu, get this dish.
Finally, we had the brussels sprouts. To be honest, we were so full at this point that they were a bit of a shoulder shrug regardless, but I think they stepped a little too far into burnt territory. Serial-position effect states that you tend to remember the first and last items in a list above all else, but at S.K.Y. the first and last dishes we had were actually the least memorable.
We had formed a great relationship with our waiter by the end of the meal, and he took it a step further by bringing out a couple sorbets for us to try after we decided we were too full for dessert. The juxtaposition of the two of them was definitely a little strange texturally because the red wine and strawberry was more icy and thin, while the mango and lime with thicker and creamier. Both tasted great, but I thought the strawberry and wine had a more complex and interesting flavor, while I didn’t get any lime from the other scoop, which tasted like biting into the freshest mango imaginable. As full as we were, my mom and I polished off that bowl.
When you first hear about restaurants like S.K.Y., you do worry. But it made me excited for Pilsen and excited for Chicago. Moreover, it made me excited to be home.
1239 W. 18th St, 60608
Total: 93/100 (Outstanding)