Posting on Lettuce Entertain You restaurants always seems to devolve into a range war of competing opinions on the appropriateness of their very existence on the planet, but I thought I'd throw down a quick report on their newest "concept" (funny how LEYE opens "concepts" while others open "restaurants") called Wow Bao, located on the ground floor of Water Tower Place mall.
The focus here is on steamed hot Asian buns, at once familiar to dim sum-mers across the city. The buns come in six varieties, each $1.19. I ordered one of each, and descriptions and rankings follow.
1. Thai Curry Chicken. Yellow, medium spicy curry coating moist chicken pieces with the typical Thai flavors of cilantro and lemongrass. Fresh, bright and discernible tastes made this one my clear winner.
2. Chicken Teriyaki. Classic interpretation, not overly-sauced or sweet, like some of them can be. Redolent of Chinese five spice powder.
3. Kung Pao Chicken. More peanuts than chicken, but this one was also a faithful interpretation of the kung pao style. Detecting a trend yet?
4. Green Vegetable. I'm not sure of the contents of this one, since cilantro was the dominant note. I assume some type of light-tasting green was in there as well. This one was disproportionately doughy compared to the others, and therefore pretty dry.
5. Mongolian Beef. Ground beef in a sweet, one-note brown sauce. Not good.
6. BBQ Pork. Had high hopes for this one, and saved it for last, but I was cruelly disappointed. Think Manwich. The big loser of the six.
The buns were pretty well-steamed...somewhere near the consistency of dumplings. Flavor is unassuming, leaving the fillings to make or break each one. As I suggested, four of the six do a good job of representing Asian preparations, but without plowing any new culinary ground. This is the Lettuce way: technically proficient, highly replicable food that lacks little soul or flair. Not that I would expect much soul or flair in a $1.19 Asian bun, so I like this "concept" (somebody stop me!) The place is all the more welcome owing to its existence on a particularly chow-desolate stretch of North Michigan Avenue, L'Appetito notwithstanding. One need no longer labor in the labrynthine, overpriced morass that is Food Life in the basement--this place is strictly cash and carry. I wanted to sample all six, and wound up eating all six, which was far more food than I am accustomed to at lunch...even on an empty stomach as I was. Each is about the size of a tangerine, with the fillings about the size of a golf ball, except for the Green Vegetable, which may have been an aberration. The menu advertises a lunch combo that includes three buns with a hot & sour broth (not tried) for $4.29 that sounds perfect for lunch, as well as a 2 bun and 8-Vegetable Salad combo for the same price. The beverage side of the menu looks very interesting, with "fresh made" sodas, including fresh ginger soda and ginger ale as well as Vietnamese coffee & mocha frappes and hibiscus lemon and ginger frappes for $3.19. The service is walk-up counter, with seating up the escalator along a formerly abandoned stretch of walkway outside Field's second floor. The Water Tower Place management must be tickled with the new energy the place has created in their moribund shopping center. Those of us stuck in the area should be as well.